Beyond the comfort zone

Adrian Hatwell talks to Tom Roberton about the assignment that allowed him to unleash his creativity — all while using a smartphone

It’s an oft-repeated truism that breaking from your comfort zone is an important aspect to growing creatively, but that’s often easier said than done for a professional with expertise in a specific area. For advertising photographer Tom Roberton, that area of proficiency is lifestyle portraiture with a naturalistic feel, and he has a healthy list of clients who consistently come to him for such imagery. Recently, however, he was given the opportunity to flex his creative muscles when a new client came knocking with an altogether different kind of pitch.

Chinese telecommunications company Huawei was looking to demonstrate the imaging prowess of its new P8 smartphone by asking a number of photographers in the Asia-Pacific region to ditch their expensive cameras, and shoot imagery solely on the mobile device. Roberton jumped at the chance to tackle something so unusual.

“I thought it was a really interesting job, because it was quite different from the kind of stuff I normally do,” he says. “Firstly, because it did not really involve people per se, but also being shot on a phone. So I thought it was a really good opportunity to do something different, it just seemed like an exciting thing to be part of.”

One of the big attractions of the brief was just how open it was. Huawei would supply the photographer with a prototype of the new phone, and it was up to him to take it for a spin and really demonstrate what the camera could do. Roberton put together a treatment that would take advantage of unique local landscapes, while showing off a few of the camera’s distinctive functions.

“To be honest, they gave me a really free hand in terms of what I wanted to do, and they trusted me with it, which is fantastic. I said, ‘I think we should go to Queenstown’, and they went ‘Great!’”

And so he found himself boarding a plane to the South Island, quickly trying to familiarize himself with the new phone, which had only been handed to him a day earlier. In fact, the entire job was pervaded by a sense of urgency as Huawei required some of the images to be ready to display in an exhibition celebrating the phone’s launch in Singapore, giving Roberton a week-and-a-half window to complete the assignment.

Despite the deadline, the photographer found the shoot itself to be a creatively rejuvenating affair, quite different from a standard commercial assignment. For some of the time he was followed by a videographer, creating a behind-the-scenes video of Roberton’s experience, but for much of the assignment he was left alone to do his own thing — no agency, no client.

“I sat there and was thinking, this is a dream job: this is an international client with a really exciting brief, and I’ve got a free hand, and I’m in Queenstown. It was like, wow, is this actually happening to me?”

Left to his own devices, Roberton got down to exploring the area’s natural bounty. He tramped up mountainous terrain to test the camera’s ability to capture breathtaking vistas, beat a path through lush bush to see how the device handled difficult light, and even got up close and personal with the wildlife using the phone’s macro features. At each turn the photographer was impressed by the P8’s imaging chops.

“I’m not holding this phone up to my 5D DSLR and saying it’s better than that, but from a phone point of view, I thought I was a really good piece of equipment.”

Roberton got the chance to test the camera’s versatility even further than anticipated: plans of shooting scenic landscapes were complicated as his visit coincided with a spell of particularly petulant weather, which made many of the area’s splendid panoramas impossible to see.

“I caught up with a photographer friend of mine in Queenstown to borrow some equipment, and he told me this was the worst weather they’d had in a couple of years.”

Not to be discouraged, the photographer took to the canopied shelter of the forest where it was drier and darker, providing ideal circumstances to try out the P8’s nifty light-painting functions. Unlike the traditional approach to light painting, in which the camera’s shutter remains open and exposes the movement of light over time, the smartphone takes an establishing snap of the environment, then records any additional highlights that are subsequently added to the scene, allowing the photographer to monitor the light painting in real time. Another feature made it easy to capture light trails, which Roberton used to shoot blurred headlights across a scenic landscape.

“You know when you first get a camera and you’re really thinking of what you can do, and you’re not constrained by clients or expectations or briefs? You just play. And I kind of felt like I was playing. It really took me back to why I first got into photography to begin with, which you can lose along the way.”

As well as putting Queenstown’s beautiful environment to good use, the client was keen that Roberton not feel constrained by convention — the avant-garde was to be encouraged. Taking advantage of the loose leash, the photographer enlisted a model friend to help create an evocative portrait in which he painted the scene with a laser pointer.

“We kind of went out on a limb and got a shot that I’d be happy to put in an exhibition as an art print. It’s great, it really stretches your imagination.”

Roberton says being asked to shoot a professional job on a smartphone put him in an amusingly conflicted position. On the one hand he marvels at the advanced power smartphones like this put in the hands of the general public, and on the other he wonders what effect this sort of powerful imaging proliferation might have on the photographic industry.

“I can see the irony in doing it, but I think it is inevitable technology is going to move along. In the same way when 35mm came out all the large-format photographers were saying, ‘Oh, this is the death of photography’. When stock photography came out they all went, ‘Oh, this is the death of photography’ …

“It’s not, it’s just a change.”

And Roberton’s happy to roll with the changes in a creative way, saying he looks forward to partnering with Huawei again in future for more out-of-comfort-zone challenges.

Article originally appeared in The Photographer’s Mail 208 November-December 2015