Her photos capture elegance at the gentlest moment, passion at its fiery heights and people in the quietest of their soul.
This month we have the privilege of chatting with portrait photographer and story teller, Carly Webber who having taken an eventful journey in photography, have come to vivaciously share with us the paths that have coloured her life, bringing her to where she is today.
We hope her story and images help you find strength, inspiration and an itching to take up that camera to go capture some beautiful moments pronto!
This is the FIRST photo I took in a studio with lighting. I hired a fashion photographer’s studio and lights for a morning and had NO IDEA what I was doing. The studio itself had a low ceiling so I had to work posing and composition around that. But this was the first time I saw magic in strobes and was drawn to the minimalist portrait style. I can’t describe the buzz I felt after this shoot – never looked back! Shot on my first DSLR, the Nikon D7000 with 50mm lens. F9 at 1/125 sec. One light, a large octa camera right.
How did you get started in photography?
My introduction to photography and the darkroom (which I loved!) started in high school with a school photography workshop and my grandfather’s SLR. Since then, my photography journey especially how I was lead to the studio and back into film photography has been eventful and challenging. More than anything else, it has been a journey of struggle and frustration but also of healing and connection.
When two of our children were diagnosed with Autism, my world became very narrow very quickly and it was clear to me that everything I did had to first revolve around this new way of life. I veered away from photographing children while I tried to understand and work through my own grief. Weddings were too much to take on so eventually I set up a DIY home studio that was very small and modest to do headshots/glamour. Even that, the coordination of people and organising props, wardrobe and styling were too trying, so I moved on.
Ending up in commercial studios with dancers at the time felt like a very ‘last resort’. I’d begun studying the work of photographers in the USA shooting athletes and dancers and I thought ‘I can do that!’ Thankfully, this genre of clients bring their own props, their own wardrobe, they are able to do their own hair and makeup, and they know exactly how to move and pose for their sport in a way that I could never direct. I could focus all my attention on lighting and my subject could just be authentically amazingly all by themselves. Of course, this was a journey as well because it wasn’t just photographing people but creating connection with them and that took time.
Mamiya C330 + TriX 400 film. F8 at 1/500sec (leaf shutter allows for faster sync speeds with strobes). Fast SS to reduce ambient light and create a darker background (white cyc) and hard contrasting light on the dancer. Gridded softbox 90deg direct to subject and pulled in as close as it would allow to decrease the depth in which it transitioned to shadow.
What was it and is it about photography that attracts you?
I get to create something, I get to take a feeling or a moment and make it tangible. And in photographing what I do, we get to celebrate something deeply personal and important to the person being photographed. I get to share in all their experience and hard work, failures, challenges and successes and I get to hear their story of how they go to be where they are. I have the privilege of both witnessing and documenting it, and in return I get to give them something beautiful of themselves that hopefully they haven’t seen quite like that before. And then knowing those photos will appreciate in value over time – that’s a beautiful thing.
Nikon D800 + Sigma 35mm. Sunrise. Natural Light. I love the perspective distortion in the 35mm lens and don’t hesitate shooting portraits up close with wide angle lenses.
What is it about shooting on film that keeps you going especially in the digital world?
To be honest, I was forced kicking and screaming into film, so I’m afraid I’ll burst any romantic bubble anyone has about it being a dreamy attraction!
It was four months after quitting photography and selling all my gear that I started desperately missing creating portraits. At that point, I had nothing because I had sold all my digital gear, so I bought a little $80 35mm Minolta SLR. But for some reason after that, I resentfully stowed it away in a cupboard. When I finally got over it and gave film another chance, the first few rolls turned out bad – really bad!
But the more I shot and the more I read, I started to get better results and as cliché as it sounds, that’s when everything changed. Suddenly, everything became authentic. And besides having to really concentrate on getting every frame in camera, I had to also slow down to really connect and engage with the people in front of me, otherwise 36 frames (and later on medium format just 12 frames) would be gone in the first two minutes.
I started loving imperfections. I love the smoothness and beauty of surface and skin. Nothing needed retouching; and as someone who isn’t very skilled in Photoshop, it was all just so perfect right off the scan. The depth, tone, colour and texture were genuine – something you can’t replicate in the digital realm.
Then with film, there is the anticipation of waiting for that ‘Your Scans are Ready‘ email from your lab. I LOVE that part. Because that is what photography is right? Recording present moments that will soon become past moments; moments that you later relive through photographs. And in a time where everything is just so instant, I get a thrill out of that wait, the reveal. It’s magic. It’s like birthdays every time! You don’t get that with digital either.
Super Rugby Wellington Hurricane. Shot in studio and composite background. Nikon D800 + Sigma 35mm. Three light set up. 2 strip boxes flanking subject (the studio I hired only had one stripbox so one is DIY – a standard softbox with a piece of card clipped over 2/3 of it to act as a flag and slim down the light source… making it work!) and a small softbox camera front.
What are some of your current favourite gear, or all-time favourite photography gear?
Favourite gear. Truthfully? My voice recorder. I get to document the honest conversations and the stories behind the faces. But besides that, I don’t really have favourites. I lost attachment to these things when I parted with all my kit the first time. Also, because I typically hire a lot of what I use as it’s always changing, always new, always different, always a new challenge. I love my Mamiya C330 medium format camera and 80mm lens though. That thing is S.I.M.P.L.E but sharp! I love studio lights and modifiers, I love a gridded soft box. And I’d be nowhere without my Sekonic l-308s lightmeter and Sigma Art lenses…. Amazeballs!
What is it about photographing people that excites you? How about dance photography? Why is it something you go back to time and again?
To me, the attraction is all in the connection. It’s a personal thing. I can’t connect with landscape or street photography. They’re beautiful genres, I love looking at them, and I’ve tried shooting them, but I can’t have a 90-minute conversation with those subjects.
However, people just fascinate me. I have a compulsive interest in vocation and greatness and in connecting dots. I love seeing and hearing how people got to be where they are, how their present is shaped by their past. And I love to share their stories in the hope the dots continue to connect.
I’m a big believer in community and the ripple effect and nothing excites me more than watching new friendships and collaborations grow, knowing that I played some small part in fostering that new connection. As far as dancers go, I sincerely admire their ability to create such emotive beauty with their bodies. I started photographing dancers because I wasn’t a confident speaker and I hated directional posing. Dancers, for the most part, were able to pose themselves. But I come back to them now because I’ve got such a huge amount of respect for their craft, for what they do in pursuit of their dreams; what they put themselves through, and what they give back. I’m so in awe of their physical and mental strength and longstanding dedication. It deserves honouring.
Fujifilm XT1. Loved this camera, although the kit zoom wasn’t very sharp, it’s compact size and great raw files (even in the dark of the night) really got me wanting to capture more photo documentary/environmental portraits. Nathan Appo is a friend and co host of NITV’s League Nation Live. I approached him via Instagram on Australia Day in 2015 asking him what Australia Day meant to him. Proud to call him a friend and grateful for sharing his culture with my family.
What have been some challenges you have faced in photographing dancers?
The biggest challenge initially was my own absence of any dance experience or skill. I am grateful for every dancer that has trusted my vision and laughed with (at?) me when I’ve demonstrated an arabesque and grand jete. I’ve been told by dancers that I have photographed a second time that I am getting better and more graceful!
Shooting dancers with film and studio lighting was a huge challenge in itself too. Working with a vintage set up and having to connect new and old equipment took some experimenting to get right. And focussing with bellows, that was (and still is) challenging – having to make sure that we rehearse repeatedly to perfect the shape and composition, to nail both the timing and distance before we even take a shot, it’s a lot of work. But the reward is in the results, that out of twelve shutter releases, every single image is different. Perhaps one or at the worst case two shots will hit the cutting room floor.
Mamiya C330 + TriX 400 film. F8 at 1/125sec. Slower SS to allow more ambient light in to render the background white and fill some of the shadows on the dancer. Gridded soft box was also further from the dancer to increase the depth of light before it falls to shadow. This was the first roll of film I shot with the Mamiya and studio strobes. I didn’t know how I was going to trigger the hired strobes with radio triggers so I used a speed light connected to the cold shoe of the Mamiya and ran a sync cable from the camera to speed light. The speed light was pointed away from the subject, and the studio strobes set to slave mode, firing instinctively off my flash. Problem solving. Finding ways 😉
Is there a particular subject, moment or place that is on your “bucket list” to photograph?
I always tell people that the portraits I most desire to photograph are not the ‘beautiful’, the exceptional or award worthy by society, the media or by any esteemed arts standard but they are of exceptional and incredible every day humans with amazing, unique and inspiring stories to tell.
I know we all have beautiful stories in us and no one is boring to me. There is one series I genuinely want to work on and that is to photograph and learn more about Australia and New Zealand’s first people and their cultures. That’s been a goal and dream of mine for a few years now.
Mamiya C330 + TriX 400 film. F8 at 1/250sec. I’m always considering lighting position when shaping dancers, prioritizing faces in the pose and making sure the light always feathers across the face.
Where, what or whom do you draw your inspiration from?
I change direction a lot so I’m inspired by a lot of people in a lot of ways. Annie Leibovitz has always been an absolute favourite for me. Early on, Joel Grimes was my introduction to athletes and studio lighting and Marti Friedlander, incredible woman. I love her work and her story. I’m also deeply inspired by Philosophers and Modern Thinkers. And as always, the amazing individuals whom I get to photograph always inspire me.
Were there any ‘crazy’ things you have done to achieve a shot?
I did try the white cloud thing once; photographing a dancer covered head to toe and sitting in 20kgs of baker’s flour. Flicking and moving and throwing flour everywhere. And I mean everywhere. That sh*t gets in places you didn’t even know existed. I think we were still cleaning it up months later. Thankfully Brooke was such a trooper for being my dancer/model. And she reckons flour washes out of hair much easier than expected.
Mamiya C330 + Portra 160 film. Metered this film at 320 ISO (1-2 stops under exposed) and asked it be pushed one stop in development. I love the grain and shift in tones this film gets underexposed and then pushed. Shot in a concrete warehouse, one light (large octa) directly above and one in front for fill. Also love it when dancers wear non dance clothes for their portraits.
I love Australia’s beautiful Aboriginal people and offered portraits in exchange for sharing with me their culture, history and perspectives. Was an incredible experience. Shot with the Fujifilm XT1 with natural light in the doorway of an old shed, keeping her in open shade. I often use flags or black card on the edge of a person (in this case camera left) to stop the light wrapping and filling the sides.
Shot in a makeshift studio in the living room of artist Conny Van Lint. She painted my new backdrops and we collaborated on this shoot with her daughter (pictured – also an artist and model) and painting Mathilda. I shot mostly digital and the initial plan was to composite some written words by Mathilda on being an artist across the final images, which I did, but I also grabbed a couple of film shots on the Mamiya C330 also. This is one of them. Film used is my fave Portra 160, underexposed and pushed one stop in developing. Shot at f4. Lighting is a very small $30 pop up Ebay softbox and $60 Yongnuo speedlight positioned just above the camera. Studio on a shoestring. Don’t be limited by your gear! 😀
Another early studio portrait with MMA fighter Shauna Carew. Still with my Nikon D7000 but this was my first time with a 35mm focal length lens and I LOVED IT. Feeling cocky and tried a three light set up, two gridded soft boxes to the side and behind and small soft box high in front (one of my fave setup for athletes). This won a bronze at the International Loupe Awards in 2013.
What advice/experiences would you share with fellow photographers who are interested yet hesitant of venturing into a different aspect of photography?
The only way to know if you’ll enjoy it is to try it! There is no shortcut or simpler method. Nike said it best with their “Just Do It’ slogan. I always believe that the only limitations you have are the ones you put on yourself. Perfect gear, perfect conditions, perfect timing, none of which are prerequisites for taking amazing photos.
Learn to be a problem solver and train yourself to come up with creative solutions on your feet and that’s when you’ll never be stuck again. Find. A. Way. Oh and gratitude. Stay thankful.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions. And please, let me know if there is anything I can do or share that will help. #communityovercompetition
Carly can be contacted at:
All images here belong to Carly Webber.