Less is more

Veteran photographer Stephen Robinson talks to Adrian Hatwell about tackling Canada with a minimal-gear philosophy


Having built an enviable commercial-photography career on the back of three decades’ work, both in New Zealand and abroad, Stephen Robinson has been around the photographic block. He’s released books, shot for top magazines, created imagery for big advertising clients, and boasts a stunning portfolio centred on people, food, and places. He’s a connoisseur: he knows what he likes, he sticks to his way of doing things, and he’s very good at what he does.

So you know it’s time to pay attention when Robinson decides to pack in his time-honed practice, leave behind the mountain of professional gear he has accrued, and hit the road to explore his photographic roots with little more than a camera slung over his shoulder.

“I have always travelled with four prime lenses, two bodies, a computer, one point-’n’-shoot camera just for good measure, and paraphernalia enough to sink a battleship,” Robinson explains. “So what would it be like to free oneself from all that, and just enjoy shooting for the pure enjoyment again?”

Robinson decided to put his query to the test on a trip to Canada. The plan was to strip his gear back to an array that simulates the conditions of film photography, through which he learned his craft. His destination also holds nostalgic significance: Canada is where he got his start as a photography assistant, 30 years ago — after quitting work with Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket, but that’s another story altogether.

To illustrate just how much he cut down on his regular outfitting for the trip, Robinson invited me to his studio for a visual representation of the disparity between kits. Rifling through a well-stocked gear closet, he checked off his standard travel munitions: multiple lenses and bodies, computer and storage equipment, plus accessories for all contingencies.

He then assembled his new, more liberating cache, the photographer’s stalwart Canon 5D Mark III, a Canon 24–70 f/2.8 L II USM to replace the primes, and a bag no larger than a pencil case holding the bare essentials — a torch, extra batteries, cards, and chargers. The former pile of gear looked weighty, though reasonable for a professional photographer — this kit looked like it could be hefted with ease by a particularly trustworthy child.

“Now I’m back home and looking at the images I shot — all 1525 of them, representing just over 42 rolls of film — and thinking was there anything that I truly regretted, missed, or pined for? No,” Robinson exclaimed.

“It was amazing and so liberating, I never thought losing all those kilograms could be that good.”

With this newly lightened load, the photographer made the voyage back to his old stomping ground, first flying to Vancouver Island and driving through to Vancouver City, before traversing the Canadian Rockies through to vineyard-rich Kelowna, then concluding with a two-week stay in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. Visiting with old colleagues, friends and family along the way, Robinson found the sensation of being ‘un-bagged’, his camera slung across his shoulder wherever he went, to be a revelatory practice.

Using the zoom lens, though it’s a little heavier than a single prime, gave the photographer the versatility required to confidently take his camera everywhere. This meant he was always at the ready to capture whatever unique instance his Canadian travels might offer, whether walking the streets or in transit.

“When I’m doing a road trip, I put the camera bag open on the passenger seat next to me. I put the strap over the back of the seat, so it can’t run away in some spiteful moment. I always keep the bag open, and the lens on, with a lens hood attached.”

This freewheeling approach had the desired effect, Robinson reported a feeling of pure photographic enjoyment on the trip that he hadn’t felt so consistently in a long time. And his images attest to this — evocative and physically descriptive, like the best travel photography is, but with a spontaneous energy, and with that singular view recognizable as distinctly Stephen Robinson.

Reflecting on his emancipating return to something more akin to analogue form, Robinson explained how the trip brought to the surface some of the long-internalized guidelines that shape his photography. Earlier in his career, Robinson had made the acquaintance of one of New Zealand’s photography giants, Brian Brake. While working on a book project together — Salute to New Zealand, celebrating the nation’s sesquicentennial — the pair got to talking, and came to articulate what Robinson calls his ‘Three Golden Rules’ of photography.

Rule one: there is only one exposure: the correct one

This rule pertains to a photographer’s intimate knowledge of camera workings prior to digital photography.

“In the film days you knew the ASA [film speed], you knew you had a shutter speed and aperture, you knew the length of the lens of your camera, and those are all elements of a mathematical equation,” Robinson recalled. “These days I don’t think people understand those equations, and that’s a problem, because those equations make an image.”

Working with Brake, Robinson said he was constantly being reminded of the calculations necessary for a correct exposure, as well as convenient ways to work them out.

“Brian really got me thinking about 18-per-cent grey, which is the correct exposure of any image. To train myself, when I went outside and looked at anything, I’d hold out the back of my hand in the light and look at it. That gave you a pretty instant grey-card reading. Not by looking at it through the camera, but by remembering what the ‘sunny 16’ rule was.”*

Rule two: never shoot more than three frames, or you’re trying too hard

Free from the constraint of film, and with equipment capable of extremely rapid shooting, it’s easy to make a habit of shooting hundreds of frames wherever you go. But if you’re continuously shooting, you’re not truly watching, and can’t give your subject the attention it requires, Robinson cautioned.

“One of the things Brian and I talked about was why New Zealanders made such great sports photographers. I reckon we make amazing sports photographers because we love sport, we’re interested, and understand the game. If you understand the rules of the game, it’s very easy to shoot the game. I’m not interested in sport, but I’m really interested in food and I know how to cook, and I can read a recipe, so I know the rules of my game. It’s not about going out there and shooting tons of stuff, you’re watching what’s in front of you.

“You talk to the really good sports photographers, and they know when a guy is going to sneeze. It’s anticipation.”

Rule three: act as if the frame in your camera is your last

Spinning out of the second rule, this one involves being confident in the decisions you make as a photographer. “Be strong and thoughtful and proud of that moment,” Robinson said.

If Brake were around today, this is the rule over which he thinks the two would have the most to discuss, thanks to digital innovation.

“I think one of the things we would mostly talk about would be the ability of digital to explore an image more, after the taking. Once you’ve been shooting for some time and understand your craft, a digital camera gives you the opportunity to move within my subject. Because you’ve lost the fear of 36 frames.”

As a seasoned photographic explorer, Robinson has since added a fourth golden rule to his repertoire: never leave your camera strap hanging off a table. I naively enquired why, and he bid me set up the experiment for myself and find out.

“Go leave a strap hanging off a table with a camera attached to it, and you just watch: someone will walk past and knock it over. Especially in a restaurant, a glass of wine or water will follow the camera over,” he explained with a laugh.

Entering Robinson’s studio is to not just be invited into his home but, with a quick survey of the space’s many adornments, into the mind of the photographer as well. The walls are populated with a varied array of contemporary art pieces, testament to a wide appreciation of beauty, while shelves are mindfully packed with baubles, revealing a life of travelling and collecting — trinkets, experiences, memories. And Robinson is only too keen to share the latter two, generously and enthusiastically, be it sage advice from the legends he has met, or hard-won wisdom gleaned while working on his own legend. A story, no doubt, with many more insightful chapters to come.

* The sunny 16 rule: used to gauge exposure in sunny conditions without a light metre, the rule sets out the equation wherein an aperture of f/16 and shutter speed that is the reciprocal of the film speed (ie. 1/200s shutter speed with 200 ISO film) will correctly expose a well-lit subject.

Article originally appeared in D-Photo 68 October-November 2015