Insights and ideas from Tim Flach
Shifting perspectives with photography
British photographer Tim Flach photographs an array of creatures, from horses and dogs to fruit bats and leopards. But it isn’t only the animals that make his photography stand out. His careful observation of his subjects combined with expert composition, cropping, and framing lead his viewers to discover the humor, vulnerability, and humanism these animals display. His award-winning work has appeared in exhibitions, commercial advertising, a 2007 Animal Planet documentary, and his own books, Dogs Gods and Equus. In this Photoshop.com spotlight, he offers insight into how he approaches his work and what he tries to accomplish with each new image.
Photoshop.com: Which piece of equipment couldn’t you live without and why?
Tim Flach: Probably the coffee machine. After that, there’s no one tool that dominates. I use both Hasselblad and Broncolor, but I don’t feel that one’s work should be determined by equipment. If I didn’t have one technology I’d use another.
Photoshop.com: What role does Adobe® Photoshop® software play in your photography process?
Tim Flach: I rely on Photoshop a great deal. It helps me bring form and energy to my pictures. I use the Dodge tool in Photoshop to lighten and darken different areas of an image to determine where I want the eye to move and how it should flow through the picture. I don’t over-process images, the authenticity of the image always remains, but Photoshop helps me craft the image and lead people to what I find interesting and surprising and want to share.
Photoshop.com: How did you create the result in the photo of the dog with the pheasants (Image 3)?
Tim Flach: I wanted to create something that evoked the traditional sports painting, with a slightly different perspective. I shot the photo at the Guinness estate, which is a historical location that fit well with the subject matter. Traditional sports paintings like this show the dog disappearing into the bracken and the pheasants flying up. I wanted to show a different point of view, putting the viewer in the same location as the birds. We went early in the morning and used flashlights to pull down the misty morning and create more tone. We had someone releasing the pheasants as the dog jumped out of the bracken. By changing the perspective the image essentially shifts what is familiar, so viewers re-engage with the subject in a new way. Post processing in Photoshop let me guide the viewer’s eye from the dog, across the image to the pheasants, and then down around the bracken. It is very much crafted, but not composited.
Photoshop.com: Describe a favorite photo you’ve shot and what grabs you about it.
Tim Flach: The fruit bats were interesting to shoot. When I brought them into the studio I had an idea to fly them around and then retouch them against a night sky. This was not a great idea, particularly as fruit bats are not that wonderful at flying by bat standards. Then I noticed the bats seemed to be almost chatting away together in the corner of the studio where they were hanging. So I opened out to the potential of that, saw something new in the idea of their personalities and the relationship between them, and asked the handlers to bring them back for another day when I could approach it with fresh objectives. In the series where the image is turned upside down, I think people are surprised to find how easily they engage with a perceived personality in the bat through the turned-around image.
Photoshop.com: How do you know that a photo is really good?
Tim Flach: Over time, views will change and priorities will change. Something that is relevant for the present may be less relevant as time goes on because values and interests change. Images have a future that you can’t predict. Subjects may become more or less interesting as their significance changes. With that in mind, I think a good image engages people regardless of its format. As a photographer, I often know I’m onto something when I trip over an element that excites me and I know will somehow excite other people. It is important to go into a shoot with a plan, but once you’re there you need to try not to be too tethered to that plan. It’s important to search for the right image, rather than just defining the shot. Often, it results in a better final outcome.
Photoshop.com: Did you always plan on becoming a photographer?
Tim Flach: There are many paths that people take in the photography world and everyone’s story is different. I trained as a fine artist in the 1980s with a focus on painting. I couldn’t have anticipated how this original training would be so useful to what I do today. The first roll of film I took in school involved looking at animals in terms of forms. I eventually turned to photography full time and found my way through corporate, architectural, studio, and design work. I learned how to light in a studio, which was useful when I had to light on location. Experiencing different forms of photography helped me learn how to be flexible and confident and influenced how I approach the craft today.
Photoshop.com: Why do you like taking pictures of animals?
Tim Flach: When I photograph animals, there is a sense of wonderment about the complexity of nature and I am often reminded and excited by that with the subject matter I approach. I am in awe of nature, but while my subject may be an animal, at the same time I am exploring things to do with what it is to be human.
I am aware that the viewer may have already seen a subject intensely and that others have covered it. Part of my challenge is to de-familiarize the subject. I need to make people see the world as a little strange again, with fresh eyes and new insight. Perhaps I do animals as I do because I see so many people shooting wildlife images, going about documentary work with a subject. I am more interested in how we, humans, are involved in this subject: how we are anthropocentric, inevitably putting ourselves at the centre of any understanding of animals. We also respond to them by imposing our behaviours on theirs, and see them as we see ourselves.
Photoshop.com: Much of your photography is conceptual in its unique composition. Why do you like to create images in this manner?
Tim Flach: Early in my career, I would be commissioned to go and photograph somebody or something. These jobs could be as diverse and everyday as recording a factory pickling gherkins or shooting a portrait of a designer of a new bike. It allowed me to go into different worlds and expose myself to different things. Then I started to see how photography was a way of creating a doorway for somebody else to find other things. You can have signs in the image that have a potential to take people somewhere else. You may not understand everything that is there, but you can have a sense for it. So I might have an image of a neck of a horse; at one level it is a horse, in another way people might see it more as a mountain, but having heard people discussing it I see they can find other associations. Photographs have this potential for layering many interpretations and ambiguity, which makes photography very special. But still it has this ultimate strength in that something existed at some point in front of the lens; if that ingredient is maintained, respected, then you have the potential for people to find a lot of connections out of that original moment that you may never have anticipated, that you could never anticipate.
Photoshop.com: What are some of the things you think about when you capture an image?
Tim Flach: How you see the observer of the image is so important. Where this person is, where the image is, it’s almost everything. I consider who is seeing the picture and if it is being delivered on a website, in an exhibition, in a book, or in another print medium. I have done images for stamps, which obviously have a very special frame of reference, not to mention being small in size. I have to think: will there be the means to support the image with other information? Will the viewer be affected by other things? It is important to consider what is possible, within the image and around the image, and understand how it will be perceived. I am not a photographer who just does an image and thinks that is it, now the viewer can make of it what they will. You can take a lucky picture, it can work, but it is better if you take a true interest in how the communication works, how the photograph will transform somebody’s experience, how meaning will be achieved.
Photoshop.com: What do you like most about shooting digitally?
Tim Flach: I’ve done a lot of equine photo shoots on location and digital lets me take the studio to the stable. Working with animals, you have a small window of time before the animal gets bored or disinterested and can’t be enticed with another carrot. With digital I can work more efficiently, covering what I need to cover and then moving on.
Photoshop.com: Describe the most remarkable photo shoot you have done.
Tim Flach: I shot some horses on location in Iceland and it was a truly wonderful experience. The landscape really said something about the heritage of the horses and that particular breed. The horses became more interesting within the context of their natural environment. The overall experience and the people we met on the shoot made it very special. Sometimes, a shoot itself can be greater than the final image. In the case of the Iceland shoot, we were lucky to have an amazing experience and come away with some great images.
Photoshop.com: What are your favorite features in the latest release of Photoshop? Why?
Tim Flach: The Content-Aware Fill tool is extraordinary. I use it in a very practical way to extend canvases. I also like the new Puppet Warp tool for fine adjustment. But perhaps the most useful new tool is the ability to convert Photoshop actions to droplets that can be saved on the desktop. We keep all of our files in a raw, unsharpened state. When we need to resize an image or multiple images for web or print, we can simply drag them onto the appropriate droplet icon.
Photoshop.com: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in the photography/design world?
Tim Flach: The only advice I would give is that it is important to see that everything you do is an inquiry and a journey. Invest in yourself, always have a space within what you to do to play, and don’t just respond to projects that are thrust upon you. Even when you’re trying to make a living, you can take projects that are personal and help you advance as an artist. You need to constantly invest throughout your life and throw yourself into unfamiliar territory once in a while. Even though it is scary, it is genuinely more exciting and can yield some great results.
Photoshop.com: What photographers or influencers do you admire?
Tim Flach: It’s important to always recognize that our work is intertwined with our culture. I learned a lot about composition from painters like Pablo Picasso and Paul Cezanne but I also maintain an interest in who is present today and what I can learn from them. Respect is also due to the influence of philosophers like Roland Barthes and Nicolas Bourriaud upon photographic practice today, my work included. Our idea of the role of the image in our society, the concept of what an image is, owes a lot to philosophers at least as much as image makers.
Tim's 6-inch print droplet