Professional nature photographer John Shaw was the recipient of NANPA’s first Outstanding Photographer Award in 1997. This year, he’s being honored with NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and will also become a NANPA Fellow. Registered for the 2019 NANPA Nature Photography Summit? You can see John Shaw interviewed by Kathy Adams Smith on Saturday, February 23, at 10:30 AM.
He’s written seven books and ten ebooks and his work has been featured in numerous books and magazines. He’s photographed on every continent and has been recognized by Nikon as a Legend Behind the Lens, as an Icon of Imaging by Microsoft and, since 2001, has been part of Epson’s Stylus Pro fine art print makers group. Last month we had the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
NANPA Blog: As this is a lifetime achievement award, where do you think you’ve had the most or the most lasting impact in nature photography?
Shaw: It may not be the most important, but I think the biggest influence was writing the first few books on technique and reaching and educating other photographers. I wanted to get into the nitty gritty, the basics of nature photography. How do you actually do this? How do you consistently produce a quality picture? Nothing like that had been published at the time.
We often harp on how easy it is to take a bad picture but the goal should be helping people produce quality. There’s a Dudley Moore line: “I have learned from my mistakes and I can repeat them exactly.” I’m trying to help people not to do that. Consistently producing quality images takes some knowledge and practice. That’s what I’ve been teaching throughout my career.
NANPA Blog: Over the decades you’ve been doing this, what has been your biggest challenge?
Shaw: The digital revolution was a big switch for me. Personally, I really liked it. It was exciting! At first, the cameras were pretty low resolution and not very good, but advances came so fast! You had to keep up or fall by wayside. I’ve always been fascinated by techie things and computers. I like learning new things. So, getting familiar with new cameras and new photo possibilities was fun.
I was doing Photoshop for a long time before digital cameras came around, so I had a leg up on other photographers. Digital processing was something I already knew.
For all the talk about social media, you don’t necessarily need to keep up with it. I’m just not interested. If I could pick on it, social media has driven down the general public’s criteria for a good photo. If it looks good on back of phone, that’s all they care about. That’s what photography has become today for a lot of people.
NANPA Blog: What has most surprised you?
Shaw: How willing many photographers are to make composites and to manipulate images beyond what you could do in a darkroom. Things like focal length blending, sky replacement, inserting things that weren’t there, using Instagram filters. As soon as the software made it possible, photographers started experimenting.
I’m seeing a lot of great post-processing work, but too many have an inordinate fascination with the saturation slider. If 50 is good, 150 is better. I’ve never seen that light. Not on this planet!
NANPA Blog: There have been many changes in nature photography, from the collapse of stock and magazines to digital cameras to the internet and social media. What’s had the most impact on you and what you do? Was it a positive or negative impact?
Shaw: One is the shift to digital. Digital lets me do things I couldn’t do before. Provia 100 pushed to 200 was my high-speed film. Kodachrome 64 was fast film. 25 was slow. I’d never imagined we could shoot at the speeds and ISO levels we have in cameras today. Every generation of camera gets better. To a guy from old film days, what we can do now is staggering.
The real challenges, though, are on business side. That’s a second big change. The decline or death of stock and publications hit a lot of folks hard. There are so few outlets for nature photography. Yet, even though magazines are failing, more and more nature photography is being seen.
Third, I was doing workshops as far back as the 1970s, starting in the Midwest and then expanding. We were one of first two or three companies in US doing nature photography workshops at that time. Travel was an adventure then. Today, travel is a real drag. It’s not as much fun as it used to be. The crowds. The security at airports. The fun doesn’t start until you are there, out in nature. One of the things I still like best is going out on my own. There’s something to be said for being out in nature, day after day, all by yourself. The experience of being out in the natural world is important for a nature photographer.
These days there are lots of people advertising photography workshops because it’s one of the ways you can still make some money. But often these are people we’ve never heard of. If I’ve never seen your photos and don’t know your name, why would I take a workshop with you?
The last observation is a challenge. I would like to see more involvement from photographers in promoting environmental issues through images. Once our rare environments and wilderness areas are gone, you can’t get them back. Some of our national monuments are under threat. Our national parks are badly underfunded. We can’t return things back the way they were after a road is built or a mine opened. With so little pristine wilderness areas left, we should leave them alone. We just don’t need to have a road or mine everywhere.
NANPA Blog: What keeps you engaged with and supportive of NANPA?
Shaw: I’ve always felt that it was important to have an organization for nature photographers. We’re becoming a kind of endangered species. We need a place to talk about photographing the natural world, about local conservation projects supported with imagery, about advocacy on copyright problems (especially for working pros). NANPA does that, and it speaks for us about these issues. NANPA promotes, advocates and educates about nature photography. There’s a need for that.
And there’s a need for photographers like John Shaw. As the awards committee noted, “he takes pictures not just with his eyes, but also with his heart. He believes in doing everything he can to increase people’s knowledge of photography and his work helps photography students of all ages achieve impressive results every time their cameras are focused on the great outdoors. There’s hardly a photographer alive today who has not been affected in some way by John’s teaching. He’s a walking archive of nature photography.” See his work and learn more about John Shaw at his website, http://www.johnshawphoto.com/.