In this interview we focus on sharp-shooter KEVIN NIXON. We were tempted to introduce the interview by saying that we'd zoomed in on Kevin for some close-up candid exposure, a flash of red-eye, and to cap it all, some hot-shoe shuffle. But Kevin said that if we did that there wouldn't be a dry-ice in the house, so we've filtered out all the puns...
Say 'cheese' Kevin!
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Hi Kevin - first of all, please tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got into professional photography.
Although I always had an interest in photography, my professional background was in Architecture. After being made redundant in the recession of the late 1980s I decided to give photography a go.
Fuelled with a combination of enthusiasm and naivety I bought a professional camera outfit with my redundancy payoff and dove in head first. I'm self taught and avoided the more traditional assisting / studying route more through ignorance than anything else!
I started out shooting pets and children, anything really that would pay the bills. After a few years I got involved in magazine and editorial photography and am currently working with Future Publishing and regularly contribute to their various music titles including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer, Prog Rock, Guitarist, Rhythm and Total Guitar. I have been shooting professionally for 22 years now.
There are some absolutely stunning photos on your website (actually all of them are stunning!) - please can you single out five photos that mean the most to you, and for each one, say why.
Thank you! I think it would be impossible to select any individual images. As photographers, we tend to be our own worst critics and a shot we love one day will be seen in a completely different light the next. I think it would be easier to select a few bands or artists I have enjoyed shooting - I think Iggy Pop is my favourite artist to shoot live - the energy he puts into his shows is phenomenal. On a downside with Mr. Pop, he did once spit in my hair which I'm sure would not have impressed his Mother! Alice Cooper is great fun to work with - he is so visual that it's impossible to get a bad shot. Prodigy and Rammstein are two more bands I love to shoot. In the studio, a portrait I did with Wilko Johnson stands out - a thoroughly nice man with amazing expressive features.
One thing I noticed is that there's a huge feeling of 'texture' in your pictures... Rick Wakeman, Wilko Johnson, Nergal, Andy Biersack, Steve Tyler etc etc., and your homepage photo of the Stones - every inch of that photo has a 'texture' to it. Is this something you aim for, e.g. regarding the lighting etc, or does it just turn out that way?
When you are shooting live, you have to deal with whatever lighting there is. This is one of the main complaints music photographers have. Smoke, dry ice, blue light, red light, anything backlit - these might look great from an audience perspective but are awful conditions for shooting live. In the studio I have total control over the lighting so can more easily create the effect I am looking for. In my portraits I do try to emphasise and in some cases exaggerate the character and texture you mentioned.
What camera(s) do you use for indoor, outdoor, on-stage, etc, and is there any other equipment that you wouldn't be without? SLR versus digital? Black'n'white versus colour? Discuss.
I switched to digital around ten years ago - after widely predicting it was all a fad! I personally think there is no competition now, and a high end digital camera combined with a basic knowledge of Photoshop will blow away an equivalent film camera in every respect. I genuinely believe it is time for film cameras to be locked away in a cupboard labelled 'nostalgia'. I can accept that digital does not have the tactility of film and nothing beats seeing your first black and white image come to life in the developer tray in your darkroom. Would I rather sit in front of a computer doing my editing or in a sweaty darkroom up to my elbows in chemicals? It is no contest for me. I have taught students who argue that digital is not 'real' photography and is cheating. This is said without irony as they fit all manner of filters on the front of their lenses. For my own main kit I use a Nikon D800 in the studio, and a Nikon D3 for live stuff. I have three prime Nikon lenses... 12-24 mm, 24-70mm and 70-200 mm. I do all my editing on Mac computers with Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom 4 software.
When you're not carrying all your gear for a photo-shoot, are you still on the alert for sights that would make a great snapshot? What camera do you keep handy for those moments, and does it feel like comparing fillet steak to beefburgers? (Sorry, that question made sense in my head, but doesn't look so clever written down).
Yes, I suppose I am always on the lookout! I like to travel and always used to take a sackful of cameras wherever I went. This is fine but there is a danger you stop looking at things yourself and only see everything through a viewfinder. A few years ago I bought a Canon G10 pocket camera and now invariably just use that on my travels. It has been a revelation and it's brought back my love of travel photography. The quality is not as great as my pro kit but this is more than offset by the freedom it affords just carrying a compact camera. I think you can get bogged down and a bit obsessive about pixels and megabytes. People tend to view digital images differently to analogue film images. We scrutinise them more looking for flaws rather than appreciating the image itself.
We're in an age where anyone at a gig can take hi-res photos, crop out all the dodgy bits and have decent quality pictures online before the end of the first song. Fin Costello once told me that you can have the best equipment in the world and it doesn't make you a great photographer - and by the same argument you can have a little box-brownie camera and take a fantastic shot. So... what makes a great photographer?
I agree that having the best kit will certainly not make you the best photographer, although I have to say that using high end kit when shooting live concert photography is most certainly an advantage. Most gigs have low lighting and a professional camera designed for that purpose will provide more flexibility and more useable images. Unfortunately you will need to be spending upwards of £1,500 for a camera body that offers you that kind of quality to compete with a professional music shooter. In all other respects a much cheaper camera can get you up and running, which I think is a great thing and with all the social media websites, there is a proliferation of stunning images out there. Competition is healthy and any photographer should always be looking to improve. Photography by its nature is subjective, so the answer to what makes a great photographer is a tricky one. As a commercial and music photographer, my first and main commitment is to satisfy the client / art editor's requirements - whether I like the concept or not, otherwise I don't get paid, it is as simple as that. Many students I meet come out of college with their 'art' credentials intact and their portfolio of Martin Parr style images, which is fine - but they have no idea how to write a business letter or prepare an invoice. A great photographer has vision, creativity and flair as well as business acumen!
You cite Victor Skrebneski and Sebastio Salgado as your inspiration. Gonna have to google those names, but... what is it about their photos that gets your creative juices flowing?
A friend gave me a book of Skrebneski's portraits when I was a teenager. The stark, intense black & white portraits struck a chord and his work was an early inspiration for me. Salgado is a Brazilian photojournalist. I came across his work a few years ago - his intense, monochrome images are vast in scale and visually stunning.
How important is it to you that the person you're photographing likes the result?
I would be lying if I said it wasn't important. When you are shooting tethered to a computer in a studio, the artist/model can see the results instantly. If they dislike them for whatever reason it can be difficult to win their confidence for the rest of the shoot. People want to be flattered, it is human nature. It can sometimes be a bit of a conflict. I may want to shoot a gritty, contrasty portrait whereas the sitter might be expecting (and wanting) all his wrinkles to be photoshopped smooth.
ONE OF KEVIN'S PRODUCT PHOTO-SHOOTS IN THE NOVEMBER 2010 ISSUE OF T3 MAGAZINE
Any disasters, such as turning up to a photo-shoot without your camera, or standing someone in front of a KEEP OFF THE GRASS sign, and they end up looking like they're standing next to an ASS sign? Any dark-room malfunctions?
Goodness, several disasters too numerous to mention. I think my most embarrassing moment was having to photograph a local MP at a black tie function many years ago when I was starting out. My brief was very simple. I had to go onto the dance floor in front of over 1000 people and simply shoot the MP being handed a bouquet of flowers. Said moment arrived, I took up my position, pressed the shutter... and no response from the camera. Pressing with more force still did not activate the shutter. After much mumbling from the crowd and fumbling from me I returned to my seat, head hung in shame and humiliation! The problem? My camera was switched off!
Who is on your ambition-list of people to photograph? Or... wildlife, a la David Attenborough? And any particular buildings or places or situations/events you'd love to shoot?
I would love to shoot David Bowie live and Eric Cantona in the studio - two iconic figures who I also happen to be a huge fan of! I also admire the architect Frank Gehry and at some point would love to go on a pilgrimage and shoot all his buildings around the world.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to become a professional photographer?
Don't do it!!!! But if you insist... persistence, drive, motivation, patience, tolerance and flexibility - all are essential tools. I love what I do, but I think anyone entering the profession should be under no illusion that it is tough and competitive. With the advent of camera phones, Instagram, Flickr etc., everyone now thinks they are an aspiring photographer. I come across lots of people who want to be gig photographers which is great but the harsh reality is that they are very unlikely to make a sustainable living out of it. Getting established is difficult and access to concerts can sometimes appear impossible. People will often ask and expect you to shoot for free. Try and avoid this, because it will undermine the value and integrity of your work and you will be doing yourself and your fellow photographers a huge disservice in the long run. My advice would be to diversify and broaden your horizons and scope of expertise. As a commercial photographer I shoot everything from live gigs to product photography to PR. I have to pay my bills so I'm very fortunate that I get offered a wide range of commissions!
All photos on this page © Kevin Nixon @ Future Publishing
© Get Ready To Roll - 9th February 2013