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Icelandic Adventures & Underwater Photography with Fine Art Photographer Cheng Han

Icelandic Adventures & Underwater Photography with Fine Art Photographer Cheng Han

Professional Photographer, Cheng Han is a self taught Fine art and Fashion photographer who also specialises in underwater imagery. He creates stunning epic shots, whilst taking inspiration from the photographic greats such as Gregory Crewdson and Horst P Horst. Cheng recently visited the southern part of Iceland, which culminated in his stunning series of photographs where the fashion and landscape merge.

Cheng's passion for photography started when his brother gave him his first SLR camera, a Canon FTB, at the age of 8. Since then Cheng has moved from yearbook photographer in his teens to his present work as a fashion & underwater photographer. At the end of august I interviewed Cheng, to find out how the icelandic shoot came about, the concept behind the shoot and to see what was shot in this stunning location.

How long have you been a photographer for & why did you chose to be in the photographic industry?

Even before the age of 10, I’ve had the use of hand-me downs from my older brother. Everything from a 35mm Canon FTB, a Lubitel 120 film camera and various super 8 cine-cameras. At school, I was very active as a yearbook photographer, then onto photographing friends and family during holidays and special occasions. The transition to collaborating with professional teams of different skill-sets to create fine art images was a major change I made about 4 years ago.

I have read your bio and can see you say you are a fashion & fine art photographer with an under water specialism. What made you choose to work within this specialism?

I love shooting on location and the medium of water is one of the most unique locations I know. Water interacts and affects subjects in such unpredictable ways. It’s always incredibly challenging logistically and technically. It's also filled with puzzles to solve. However, when it works, I get images I could never get shooting on dry land even in this age of photoshop.

How did you start shooting with water?

I had assisted on a shoot which was set up as a 'flooded room'. A platform had been built on the surface of a very large underwater studio pool. That got me interested in the idea. I finally tried shooting in the sea using a camera in a bag as an introduction and enjoyed it enough to want to take it further. I did my first underwater shoot in early 2013.

Where do you shoot the underwater images, do you need a swimming pool for this? Do you have your own pool?

I am fortunate to have access to a private pool which I have been gradually fitting out as an underwater studio with backdrops, underwater and overwater lighting, along with the ability to build basic sets and platforms. Some photographers get excited buying new lenses… I get really excited when I have new bits of aluminium scaffolding to build bigger underwater platforms or if I stumble upon extra wide rolls of fabric I can use as backdrops underwater. Apart from the major underwater studios owned by Pinewood, Warner Bros and Basildon (another huge 6 metre pool), our studio is one of the only fully equipped underwater studios in the country.

What inspired you to start shooting with water as part of your Photography?

It’s a combination of opportunity in having access to the right facilities as well as a ongoing fascination for the style of images which can be achieved.

What where the main difficulties you found in lighting under water, in comparison to normal lighting in a studio?

Basic setting up is a challenge. You can’t actually breathe in this studio so all the underwater setup is done using scuba gear. Backdrops for example, never try to float away in a conventional studio. I’ve taken the view from the start that there shouldn’t be compromises just because it’s shot underwater. I often see pool tiles in underwater images as an unintentional backdrop. You would never accept seeing the random clutter at the back of a studio so why are pool tiles somehow acceptable?All the underwater lighting is set on lighting stands exactly as I would in a dry studio and I combine underwater lighting with overwater lighting simultaneously. For above water lighting, everything has to be secured. Stands are all strapped to floor to ceiling supports to prevent anything from falling in so every lighting adjustment takes 4-5 times longer to do than in a regular studio. Everything has to be unstrapped, repositioned and secured again.

Colour cast can be an issue if lighting is set too far from the subject since water seems to absorb the red / orange spectrum. Having the flexibility to move lighting around exactly the same way as on land minimises this issue. I’ll also wrap the pool with huge amounts of neutral coloured fabric to prevent the colour of the tiles tinting the light from flash.

There’s also the issue of how water / chlorine resistant, conventional studio equipment can be. I did get strange looks when I approached studio equipment manufacturers and ask if their stands will corrode underwater or if the black colouring on the soft boxes or colours on backdrops will bleed into the pool.

Why is photography your passion?

I can’t draw, paint or sculpt to save my life. Photography provides me with the means and satisfaction to express thoughts, ideas and emotion in a tangible way.

You recently went to Iceland to shoot Fashion, what was the inspiration behind the shoot?

Opportunity was the main inspiration for choosing Iceland. A shoot on the scale of bringing a full team to Iceland is simply something which is out of access for 99.9% of photographers as a private project. I therefore went with a group of people who collectively shared in the costs of shooting in such a challenging location.

What lighting kit did you work with and how did this help you create the images?

Elinchrom Quadras were an absolutely joy to work with on this shoot. They provided the perfect balance between portability, durability and power. They stood up to the wet weather, freezing temperatures and harsh surroundings. When the winds were not too strong, I used various Elinchrom Rotalux softboxes with Rotalux Grids. I also used a tall California Sunbounce Heavy Duty Boom Stick to get the lights high up to simulate the positioning of the natural sun.

Did you find the environment challenging during the shoot, so many elements water, ice, sand?

The environment was not only challenging for equipment, it was incredibly difficult for the models. I was wearing a heavy feather insulated jacket while they were wearing thin dresses in 5 degrees C and 30mph winds at some of the locations.

Do you shoot on film or digital and how many shots do you take when shooting on location like this?

I only shoot digital but I try always to use digital cameras in a way which would be make film photography totally impractical. My preference is to get as close to the perspective and distance compression of natural eyesight which is 50mm (on a 35mm camera system). However, with 50mm and an epic location like Iceland, you would lose most of the background. So my shots are generally panoramic stitches of 35 to 50 images shot with a 50mm lens to get as close as possible to what I saw with my own eyes.

Was it difficult logistically to get models, creative team & kit to such remote locations?

I was fortunate not to have been the one who organised all the logistics of such a shoot but such a unique location meant that there would be many who would have loved the opportunity to be there.

Are there any tales to tell from behind the scenes of this shoot?

Lots of little tales of walking knee deep in icy water, outfits sticking to ice, rain fogging everything up and having to run back and forth to the trucks with sudden downpours of rain / snow. However, the most memorable part of that series of images occurred when I got back. I didn’t like the sky from a particular shot and wanted to re-shoot it. However, the landscape from the original shot was really flat so I needed a clear view all the way to the horizon showing a gradual compression of clouds leading to the horizon. I had to find a location back in the UK which had these characteristics so I could re-shoot a sunrise or sunset.

I needed a perfectly flat landscape offering an uninterrupted view into the distance - the sea would be ideal. Googlemaps showed me a perfect strip of land poking out of the south coast of Wales (Porthcawl) which stuck out leaving a clear view across the Atlantic westward. I drove all the way out there, waited for sunset and clambered over rocks by the sea to photograph the sky at sunset which was finally used in the shot.

You have a very special way of lighting , what is your inspiration for this?

I do? On location, my approach is simply to keep the main subject just slightly brighter than the surroundings but to do it in a way which is unobtrusive.

 However, where conditions and time allow, I am fascinated the techniques employed by masters like Horst P Horst and Irving Penn. They layered dark elements against light and light against dark switching them around several times within a single image. It’s a way to ensure that every important component stands out by making sure that there are a strong brightness contrast between foreground and background.

I see such a creative thread through all of your work, do you work on these concepts alone or do you have a team of people who brain storm ideas with you?

Initial ideas are often born from fleeting glances at images which I see in daily life. The interesting ones usually hibernate and develop into clearer concepts when they are matched with another image or additional discussions with others, most often with my wife. If there’s enough there to perhaps become a shoot concept then discussions with potential team members will usually transform it from concept to an intended image.

I absolutely love applying techniques from multiple photographic genres within one image. I’m a photographic geek at heart so a "stitched, panoramic landscape image with a beautifully styled model who is full of personality, lit using studio lighting techniques to form an image which tells a story” is pretty much right up my street…

What's the best thing about being a photographer?

There is a tremendous satisfaction and excitement when a mental image becomes successfully translated to a photographic one after weeks or even months of planning. However, one of the worse things about being a photographer is the stress trying to figure out how on earth to make that image happen in real life when things just don't seem to work out on a shoot.

I have taken a look at all of your current work and can see you like to have a story within the images, why is this so important?

I’m veering more towards photographs which appear like I am witnessing a situation presented before me rather than a image where the subject is posing AT the camera. Great models do provide an ideal representation of a person playing a role in the context of the image. However, a model just standing there staring at the camera just doesn’t do it for me. There has to be an intriguing concept, story, emotion or at least a study into a “what happens if…”. Working with models, I do find myself trying to downplay their involvement to avoid their looks over-dominating an image. They, the outfits and location should take equal importance, working together symbiotically rather than it being entirely about one single element.

My preference is for images which make sense sitting on a wall in a home or commercial space to enhance that space. Without a story or context, the image simply becomes a portrait of some random stranger which can looks a little odd on a wall.

What camera and lighting kit do you shoot with, and what piece of kit can you not shoot without?

An active imagination - no piece of kit is going to substitute this. However, top of my list of must-haves on shoots are the Pentax 645Z for most images and a Canon 5D MKIII for underwater work. For lighting, I use Elinchrom Quadras which I combine with Ikelites for underwater work.

Why do you work with Elinchrom Quadra Kit, in your opinion what is so special about this kit?

It offers the perfect balance between portability and power. It’s an indoor studio that fits in a bag which I can sling over one shoulder - what more could I ask for on location?

What would be your dream photographic job?

It would certainly involve having a team of like-minded collaborators travelling from one epic location to another shooting elaborately styled images which sell for enough to allow the next epic project to be funded…. you did say that it was a ‘dream’ job right?

If you where to give one piece of advise to future photographers what would this be?

Apply constant, gentle pressure to the process of improvement. It allows you to explore and enjoy the learning process but to be continually trying to push things further. Better images bring better team members which leads only to even better images.

What is your photographers motto?

Make it epic and communicate an emotion!

What attribute does it take to be a professional photographer?

I believe that simple basic principles apply when you’re trying to get someone to pay hard cash for your work. It’s always about how your work adds real value to someone else’s life. It’s therefore essential to be able to visualise your ideal paying client and to understand their needs. A consistent style then helps that potential client to recognise you as a good match.

There’s a strong pull to remain self-indulgent in the process of making what is perceived to be artistic images but ultimately, if the work doesn’t connect with a paying customer then all you’ve got is an image which might get a load of ‘likes’ but one which no one actually buys. Nothing wrong with this but there’s a decision to be made at some point. I’m going to use a quote from designer Tom Ford who summarised it beautifully in relation to the fashion industry but could easily be used for all creative professionals: "Decide for you if fashion is an art or an artistic business."

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