Thanks for taking some time for an interview. I generally “pick” free software developers but I thought it would be interesting to talk to a photographer who happens to use and know Linux… and does his fine art photography work on a Mac with Lightroom & Photoshop.
For a start (and almost as a ritual) can tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Neil McShane. I am 39 years old and live in Navan, Co.Meath, Ireland. My main work is as an Engineer for Canon Colour Copiers etc… for the past 20+ years now. I was a very keen cyclist in my teens but due to a car crash (got hit from behind) I was unable to continue with the sport. So working for Canon at the time I was able to get my hands on some camera equipment and started to take photos for fun but this quickly changed into a hobby and now it’s a way of Life. At present I am a member of Navan Camera Club and teach the Beginners Course in Photography.
You mainly produce black & white images. Why is that?
The answer to this is all down to my work with Canon and we are going back some 15 years. Going around all the different 1 Hour photo shops repairing their photocopiers and each one had a different idea of the ‘perfect colour setup’ drove me mad. I liked the idea of the control you have over your work in the darkroom, processing the film, making a contact sheet and then the final black&white print. I fell in love with B&W prints at this stage. There is nothing better to look at than a B&W print full of contrast, tones, and texture. Ansel Adams (My Hero) also has a lot to do with it as well and this leads into to your next question.
When I said “photographer” earlier… in your website you define yourself as an artist (vs a photographer). Can you explain a little bit?
Everyone who takes up a camera and presses the shutter button can class themselves as a photographers. However as you said I class myself as an artist using the medium of B&W photography. Before I press the shutter I have a final image in mind and this does not look like the image that was recorded on the film or in this case the digital sensor. Again thanks to Ansel Adams and ‘visualization’. So this image is in my head and through the conversion process from colour to the final b&w print is the art side of my photography.
Is photography a “strong hobby” of you or do you make a living of it?
I would class myself as a semi-pro photographer. I don’t make enough at the moment to give up the day job but sometimes this day job gets in the way of the photographic side of my life. I sell my photos thru my website all over the world but mostly to England and America. The people who are buying my work are nearly all Irish born or have Irish connections and are looking for something different rather that the usual picture postcard photos from home. Also a company called The Canvasworks stocks some of my work and they produce large canvas prints. I do all my own printing but the Canvasworks has copies of my original files and do their own prints under some guideline from me. I also do some freelance sports photography work for the local and national newspapers which I enjoy greatly.
What’s in your camera bag?
I have two different camera bags one for the landscape work and the other for sports. The landscape bags has Canon EOS 5D with a selection of wide angle lenses including the 24mm tilt+shift, 20-70, 16-40 etc.. with a 400d and 10D as backup.The sports bag has a couple of Canon EOS 1d mkIII with a range of telephoto lens going up to 400mm. Also in my bag would be the usual filters from Lee for landscapes, backup storage device and lots of memory cards. Oh! don’t forget the tripod and remote release.
If we turn to the post-processing phase, what programs do you use?
Again I have two different systems for the landscape and sports photography. Starting with the landscape work I use Apple Mac’s with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Lightroom is used for the start of the conversion process (colour to b&w) and then Photoshop takes over with masks for dodge and burn to produce the final image. For the sports work I use Digikam on Suse Linux to edit and caption the images before they get uploaded to the newspapers. I also use Bibble Pro to do some Raw conversion if needed.
What about printing: how do you go about it?
As I have already said I do all my own printing. I have a closed loop system. I spent a lot of time and money in getting the right system in place that would give the results I was looking for. I know I work for Canon but I use a Epson R2400 printer with Permajet paper. The Mac and printer are fully calibrated. I print my images using Photoshop and the Epson print driver in the advanced B&W mode. This is usually not the way most people print as they let photoshop control the printer and turn off the colour controls in the driver.
You also mentioned Linux in one of your emails. What do you use Linux for?
I have been using Linux for the past 10 or more years now starting of with RedHat 4 I think. I now am using Open Suse on a desktop machine and Fedora on a Hp laptop with which I am writing this interview. I started using Linux because I was tried of Windows crashing. Also Linux is FREE.
When I setup the company NMS Photography I needed a system that was stable and safe. However back in the good old days of dial up modems and windows soft-modems it was a struggle but in the end it all worked. Now I don’t use Windows anymore and will never go back as long as I shall live.
I will jump back a couple of years to explain how I got to use Linux for my photography. I do a lot of walking in the mountains and along the coastline of Ireland. My camera bag was starting to get very heavy with all the extra cameras and lenses. I needed that magic camera that would do every thing in one go. I started to do my homework and I know you have been having a go at Michael Reichmann from The Luminous Landscape lately but reading one of his articles and some others I found the magic camera. It was the Sony R1 (shock not a Canon). That Zeiss lens is wonderful. As they said just buy the camera for the lens and you get a 10.3 megapixel sensor on the other end.
At the time I got the camera no software was able to process the Raw files on the Mac. Again some homework I came across Bibble Pro. Now this was amazing you could use your one license code to load the program onto the different computers systems (Linux, Mac OS, and windows). This is the only software I have ever had to buy for Linux over the 10 or so years using Linux. So I started to use Bibble Pro to do all my Raw processing on the Linux computers and copy the files onto CDs. The files would be transfered on the Apple Mac to do the final B&W work and printing.
The idea was that the Linux computer had the Raw files and the backup conversion files safe. I now do all my work for the landscape images on the Mac with Lightroom but still us Linux for the sports images. I also use Linux to run my website and emails and ftp to the newspaper servers for all the sports images. Not one system failure or crash in all that time. The only problem I have had was with the battery for the cmos on the desktop computer running low so the system clock was always wrong and was causing the bootup to full scan check on the hard drive.
What is missing in Linux for you to use it for fine art photography?
Photoshop for Linux and Lightroom. I know you can get Photoshop to work with wine but I am not going the go out and buy a windows version of Photoshop for this purpose. Also I don’t know if the Epson driver will work under Linux. 16-bit files not supported. I know there are a couple of programs that support this but they are not up to the level I need as the moment.
Are you optimistic that these shortcomings can be addressed in a near future and you will be able to have a 100% Linux fine art photography workflow?
Yes I am optimistic that these shortcomings will be addressed. If you do not do your own printing but send your finished work out to a pro-printer than I don’t see any other reason why you can’t use Linux 100%.
I would like to take advantage to talk with you a bit about photography. I sometimes have the feeling of concentrating too much on technique and equipment and missing “the big picture”. How can I enlarge my vision? How can I go from a shutter clicker to a photographer – dare I mention artist here…?
This is the hard part of the interview now. Please don’t think I have a Big Head as they say but with digital photography people have become very lazy. Back in the day’s of film you had to learn all about exposure and how to set up the camera correctly. Nowadays its just turn the camera on and press and keep pressing the button. 100 or 500 shots later you are still do not know how or why. You are not the only one going down the technique and equipment road.
I teach photography to the new members who join the Navan Camera Club. I stress the point you do not need to go out and buy the latest high-tech camera to make good photographs. Yes you need a good camera but I point out that if you buy the middle range camera and put all your money into the lens then you would be better off as its the glass in the lens that the light passes thru on its way to the sensor. Example of this was one member went out a got a Canon EOS 1Ds mkII camera and used the kit lens that came with the 300D camera he upgraded from.
Sorry Joel to get back to your question. How do you improve your photography. First learn how to use your camera in manual mode and set the up the exposure. Study the work of other great photographers and ask yourself way do you like these photographs. Put your work out there for some C&C. Don’t just keep your photo’s as files on the computer. Join a club and go out with other photographers on day trips. You will be surprised at the amount of info you can pick up and its good to talk to real people about photography not just read from books and the internet.
Get out and take loads of pictures but take notes like the location, time of day, and the camera setting used. When you upload your images and are looking at them on the computer screen. You can look at your notes and this will help you to understand what went wrong or right. After a while it will become second nature to you which lets you have more time to work on your composition which is another chapter in the book.
Is living in such a beautiful country as Ireland a pre-requisite for fine-art photography?
It helps. No, you can live anywhere as long as you have light. The fine-art of photography comes from within you not the equipment you use or the country you live in. Nearly all the great photographs were taken not far away from the home of the photographer as they can keep going back to the same location time and time again until they have the right light they are looking for.
One last word as a conclusion?
Stay local and go back to a location at different times of the day and year. Keep notes and don’t just get to a location and take one photo. Use the human zoom function (your legs) and walk around taking photo’s from different viewpoints. Happy shooting.
Neil, thanks again for your time.
Joel thank you for this interview even if it was by email and not face to face.