Photography Rookie to Vanguard Professional – The Michael Carver Story
Michael Carver has built a reputation over the years as an incredibly talented amateur photographer. His creative landscape photography shows the beauty and ruggedness of the Scottish Highlands that he’s called home for over 15 years. Michael moved from Dundee to the Highlands for work, on what was supposed to be a 1 year contract but fell in love with the place and stayed. If you’re a regular visitor to the TeaBreakTog blog or our Facebook page, Michael’s name will be familiar to you. As well as being a husband, dad, full-time quantity surveyor and amateur photographer – Michael is also a volunteer at TeaBreakTog and contributes so much of his expertise to the group.
Michael was announced as a Vanguard World Professional Photographer in November 2015. Vanguard manufactures high-quality, photo-video accessories and they recognised, as we all do, Michael’s gifted photography.
But where did the journey start? How did Michael evolve from being a complete beginner to where he is now? We asked Kevin Anderson to find out.
The Interview – by Kevin Anderson.
I first met Michael in 1987 when we both made the leap from Primary School to ‘the big school’ that was Harris Academy in Dundee. I’ve not seen Michael for years, but we maintain that very modern relationship – we’re Facebook friends.
Michael, were you a photographer back in our high school days at Harris Academy?
Michael – Back in our high school days I had no interest in photography at all, in fact my interest in photography only started about four years ago. My son was around one and it occurred to me that the only photos we were taking of him were on our phones.
I had a cheap point and shoot that never left auto mode but it wasn’t great either. I decided to buy “a real camera” thinking this would be my short cut to amazing photos. After all, how hard could it be? So I went to Amazon and without doing any homework bought the cheapest DSLR I could find that had good reviews. A few days later a Nikon 3100 dropped though my door and from that moment on I was hooked.
I started to experiment with the camera in manual mode, getting to know the basics like shutter speed, depth of field etc. I placed one of my son’s ‘Action Man’ figures on the kitchen table and just sat and played around with all the settings to see what affect each button had.
Whilst I was taking lots of photos of our kids, I had also started to take my camera out with me whilst walking. Living in the Highlands, I’ve always liked getting out and about and often felt frustrated at not being able to capture what I was seeing. For that first year I totally immersed myself in photography, thirsty to learn all I could. I created a ‘Flickr’ page and started to follow photographers whose work I admired. I soon found there was a great community of local photographers who were happy to answer any questions or queries I had.
During the first year or so that I was taking landscape shots, I didn’t think they were good enough to show anyone. I finally decided to share one of my images in a photography forum and was blown away by the response! Here were professional photographers, whose shots I loved, praising my work and telling me I had a “good eye” – whatever that was!!
So that was it! Every chance I had, I was out with my camera chasing the light and looking for new spots to photograph around my area. I joined a local camera club as a beginner and was, once again, really surprised at how much more experienced photographers were reacting to my work. I think the fact that I was simply doing my own thing, helped me to create my own style, without being too heavily influenced by someone else’s work – same goes for wedding work, which I’ll touch on later.
What can you remember about your first camera and those early days as an amateur photographer?
Michael – Well for me there is no halcyon days of film or anything like that. I did have an old Canon film camera that my partner bought with her birthday money when we were both 17! We took it to Thailand on holiday but after that it sat in it’s bag for years just gathering dust.
You’re well known for your broad range of photography. I’ve seen your wedding photography and your portraits but it’s your landscape photography that I associate most with you. Do you see yourself as a landscape photographer first and foremost?
Michael – I love both to be honest. In fact, if it involves a camera I’m generally in my element. If I had to choose, then out chasing the light and capturing landscapes is when I’m happiest. It’s quite a thrill when you find yourself someplace amazing, where the light is perfect and you know you are onto something special. I guess most people associate me with landscape work but I also love to photograph people and weddings.
I kind of fell into photographing weddings. A friend had blown his wedding budget and, knowing I had a camera, wanted me to come along and take some photos. The pressure of shooting a wedding couldn’t be further from my idea of fun back then. I’d much prefer to be relaxing by a loch or camping on top of a mountain watching the sun set. As you can probably guess, my friend eventually wore me down and persuaded me to shoot his wedding. I warned him not to expect anything special but once I got going, I actually really enjoyed it. The pressure of getting the shots was actually quite exciting!
Knowing landscapes was my comfort zone, we arranged to take a few shots at sunset in a field behind the reception venue and we got lucky. I shared a few of the photos and before I knew it I was being asked to photograph weddings all over the country. These days I am a little more relaxed about it but I still get that huge buzz. You know, when you are onto something!
I love to shoot weddings where I can capture split seconds throughout the day and capture real memories for people. It’s like a wee window into someones life, just for a day. It’s so rewarding seeing their reaction when you deliver their photos and knowing that something you have created will be treasured for the rest of their lives.
I do a lot of work up here in the highlands and I get to mix my love of both genres quite a bit.
I’m addicted to learning knew stuff! Seeing a photo or a technique thats new, figuring out how its done, practising and nailing it. Photography is a great hobby because there is never an end game. You can always keep improving and there is always something new to capture.
As you’ve probably noticed I’m always taking photos of my kids too. They put up with a lot from me and can often get fed up with me asking them to do this or that!! I get a few photobooks printed each year and hope to be able to give them all of the books when they get older and they can look back on their childhood with a photobook of each year growing up.
What is it about landscape photography that you’re drawn to?
Michael – I used to think fisherman were mad standing by a river all day but, like landscape photography, even if you don’t come home with a cracker, you’ve still been outdoors seeing the world rather than parked on your bum with a bag of crisps watching tv. Landscape photography has taken me to the most beautiful places in Scotland at the most beautiful of times. I’ve seen things I wouldn’t have had I not been out, with my camera in my hand, looking to catch photos.
I’ve said this a few times to the Tea Break Tog guys but I keep a wee diary and pencil in any spots I pass at the time of year I think it would be best to be there for the direction of light etc. Its rare for me to visit a location on the off chance I’ll get a photo – weather reports, google earth, sunclac.com, all of these things are really handy when you are planning a trip out.
This might sound a little weird too but I enjoy my own company and the peacefulness of being out with my camera and my own thoughts. As you’ve mentioned above I work day to day as a Quantity Surveyor in the Oil Industry and that can be quite stressful, getting behind the camera is my way of relaxing and forgetting about the pressures of work.
I know you’re a naturally humble man Michael, but you’ve clearly got an incredible talent and a natural eye for a great photograph. How did you get to this stage? Did you take a course or are you self-taught?
Michael – Erm, thanks. I have never taken a course on photography. Everything I’ve learned is through what I’ve found online or by pestering other photographers to ask how they did it. There is such a great community of like minded photographers out there, most of them are only too happy to help you out.
Some people learn more from going on a course and a teacher explaining things and, of course, that’s great! I just find that I learn more when I just have a go and try to find things out for myself! I guess I’m not that great a listener – (you probably remember that from our days at school Kev!!).
I have learned a lot more from experienced photographers though and this is part of the reason I love to join in with the rest of the Tea Break Tog guys. I find it really satisfying and rewarding to know I can help someone out a little, then seeing them progress, like some of the beginners on the page, is amazing! A few of the photographers I pointed towards Tea Break Tog, to help with their development, are absolutely flying now!
I also do a lot of work with my local camera club – running courses or holding workshops too.
There’ll be a lot of people, myself included, that look at your photographs and compare them to their own. The thoughts that jump into my head are things such as – “I’ll never be able to take photographs like that!” What would you say to people like me?
Michael – Well, I guess the secret is to follow your own path. Take photos for yourself, photos you like. If you photograph something you love then your passion will shine through in your photos. Everyone is on their own journey and I like to look at other photographers work as an inspiration to help me improve, rather than get downhearted about how I’ll never be as good as them.
There are landscape and wedding photographers out there who blow me away with their amazing photos, I aspire to take photos like their’s one day and that’s what keeps me going.
I’m starting out on my photography journey (again) – what advice would you give to me and the many people who are just beginning their photography journey? Where is the best place for us to start?
Michael – Practice as much as you can! There is endless information out there. Courses are a great way to learn too.
I recommend Julie’s podcasts to most people who are starting out and who ask me the same thing. The podcasts split everything up into manageable chunks and definitely make, what can be a daunting subject for beginners, much easier to understand.
You must be incredibly proud of your status as a Vanguard Professional – how did that come about?
Michael – Vanguard were running a feature called “kit ain’t sh*t”. They found one of my photos on Flickr that had been taken with my first DSLR, the entry level Nikon D3100 and a kit lens. The article was centred around how you don’t need mega expensive kit to capture great shots. I explained to them that I’d since upgraded my camera but they ran with the article anyway.
A few weeks later I got a call from the Vanguard Marketing Director in the UK who had stumbled on my newer work, after clicking on my profile in the blog about the beginners kit. He loved my photos and asked me to sign up as an International Vanguard Pro. I was delighted and incredibly flattered. I test and review gear for Vanguard as well as provide them with content for their blogs and articles, I know it would be easy for me to say this but the kit they make really is top quality and I’m happy to recommend their products.
Can you share your top 5 tips for any level of photographer looking to take the step up?
Michael – Sure thing!
- Shoot less and think more. I once met an old guy with a wooden box field camera out on location one evening. He explained how the process of setting up his camera and the cost of the film etc meant he wanted to make sure everything was right before pressing that shutter. Its something I try to do a lot when I’m out too – rather than getting to a location and running around like a madman spraying photos on burst mode, I like to take a step back and really thing about what I want to say with this photo and how to go about it. It’s quite therapeutic and definitely more rewarding when you capture what your after.
- Don’t get too disheartened when you look at more experienced photographer’s shots and think you’ll never reach that level. Photography is a journey of constant learning. Follow a photographer’s work you like and try to reverse engineer how they did it.
- Learn to accept critique and to critique your own work too. I never get too hung up about critique from another photographer, even if it’s bad – photographs are subjective and if one guy doesn’t like your photo then it doesn’t mean it isn’t any good. I love to hear other people’s thoughts on my photos. I might not always agree with them but I always take a moment to think about any comments made and see if I can apply them to the next photo to improve. I also like to go back through my own photo’s and self critique them. It’s a good way of seeing what you have learned and sometimes a fresh pair of eyes on an old image can spot something that’s fairly obvious.
- Try not to get too carried away with those sliders in post processing. When I first started out it was easy to pull those saturation sliders in photoshop all the way to 11. Its something most beginners will do when they first start out shooting landscapes but in reality the old adage of ‘less is more’, is often the truth. My tip would be to try not to create light that wasn’t there. It’s fine to work on an image and make it your own through photoshop, I’ve no problem at all with that but I find my favourite photos are the ones when I haven’t gone too far with the editing.
- Always have a camera with you, if you can. How many times have you been out and thought, “I wish I had a camera with me”? Phones are great these days but you’ll kick yourself for not having your gear with you. Landscape photography is probably 20% about having the skills and eye to catch the photo – the other 80% is about being there, finding the photo and timing it right.
Michael, I asked you to share the five photographs that you’re proudest of. I realise that’s a big ask, especially when you are as productive as you are.
Michael – Picking just five is almost impossible but usually my favourite photo isn’t always about how good it is. Family photos for obvious reasons and wedding photos too – sometimes you can be in front of a couple with your camera, they have their family and friends behind them and for a split second they forget I’m there, they forget everyone is watching them and you catch that fleeting second for eternity, that’s quite special.
Landscapes though, the thing about landscape photography is that I can look at every photo I’ve taken and I can remember where I was, what the day was like, how the weather was. Often my most memorable shots are taken when everything just clicks into place. The elements all work together to create that split second of magic and you are there with your camera all set up ready to catch it.
I have included a few of my favourite landscape shots for you in this article.
Can you tell us the story behind one of your pictures?
Michael – This is one of my early photos and it was taken at Elgol in Skye. I got up and out of bed ridiculously early and made my way over to Skye from Inverness (about a 3 hour drive) hoping to catch sunrise. When I arrived it was raining and cloudy! I’d given up much hope of catching anything but decided I’d stick it out for an hour or so. Soaked through and freezing I was ready to pack up when the skies broke, the light burst through and lit everything up – with a nice wee rainbow being the icing on the cake!
What is the ONE thing you wish you knew when you were starting out that would have made everything easier and/or more pleasurable?
Michael – Don’t be frightened to join in with other photographers on forums like Tea Break Tog or other social media platforms. Everyone starts someplace and joining in with weekly challenges or interacting with other photographers in discussions can be a great way of motivating yourself to improve. I mentioned how I was quite reserved and apprehensive about sharing my work but really there will always be photographers better than you and there will always be photographers out there who would love to have taken one of your photos, whoever you are.
Thanks for taking the time to share your story Michael. Where can our readers find out more about you and see more of your work?
Michael – Thanks Kevin, aside from my ramblings on Tea Break Tog, you can follow me on Facebook at Michael Carver Photography or on my Flickr page. There is also a little about me and my work on Vanguard World’s ‘meet the pros’ section.
We would like to thank Michael for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions and sharing some of his truly amazing images with us!