Q & A with Mark Alexander
How long have you been working as a professional photographer?
I have been working as a professional photographer for over 10 years with much of my early work coming from architectural and property photography. It really started when I got a weekly column in an Edinburgh property newspaper. I visited high-end properties to get the story behind the ‘For Sale’ sign. It was my first opportunity to combine writing and photography, which is what I enjoy most. With my images being used for the front cover, I quickly worked out the importance of taking eye-catching images.
Can you remember when you first picked up a camera and what it was and how you felt?
I have owned a number of cameras and snapped away for as long as I can remember. I got my first ‘real’ camera while at university in Aberdeen in the early 1990s. It was a Canon T70 and a huge step-up from the point-and-shoot cameras I had used before. This was a proper camera with plenty of options and exposure modes, and far too advanced for my fledgling photographic mind. I persevered, experimented and started to build up a shoe box full of my favourite shots – I still have one of those shots hanging above my desk in my office today. I went digital in 2004 when I purchased a Canon G5, which was soon replaced by a 20D. That seems like a long time ago now, but I can still remember each camera.
You’re a golf photographer, how did you get into that?
I was brought up in St Andrews , the Home of Golf, so it seemed inevitable that I would do something in the golf industry, although at the time I didn’t put the two together. After living in London for a number of years, my wife and I returned to Scotland and I started working for various golf magazines as a writer. One of my editors asked me to interview a pair of golf course architects and, if possible, take a photo of them. While I was waiting to conduct the interview, I decided to take some pictures of the course where the interview was taking place. It was then I realised golf course photography was really landscape photography with a golf course in it. It sounds simple enough, but it was a revelation to me. Until then, I had been shooting landscapes and had completed a couple of modestly successful exhibitions. This revelation gave me something to focus on – an area of specialism.
What sort of things do you do to keep inspired in golf photography?
There are a number of talented golf course photographers out there so when I see a shot that ticks all the boxes in terms of composition, light and subject, I get inspired. Equally, there are a lot of golf clubs that disregard photography and are happy to use images shot in the middle of the day displaying a waterfall or a flower arrangement. Talking from experience, a waterfall doesn’t make me want to play golf, but an inspiring shot of a fairway with all the undulations and challenges of the hole on show does. I get a buzz out of taking images like that. It’s like any form of photography – you have to connect with your audience and tell a story. When I do a portrait, reportage or architectural photography, my objectives are just the same, you have to connect with the viewer and say something, otherwise it’s just a snap.
Do you play golf yourself?
Yes, but not very well. I used to be good before I delved headfirst into the joys of adolescence. Unfortunately, I still have those memories but I never seem to fully revive them. Of course, being on a golf course taking photographs rather than practicing my swing doesn’t help.
What’s your most memorable shot or shoot and why?
Each one has a story, but one of the most important was a shoot I did for the R&A ahead of the 2009 Open Championship at Turnberry. I had timed my visit to shoot the course as close to the tournament as possible but before the stands and scoreboards were being erected. The weather had been unsettled, but I spotted a gap in the forecast, jumped in the car and drove down to Ayrshire as fast as I could. During the three-hour drive, the weather deteriorated and I ended up driving through torrential rain and hail at times. I kept reminding myself that it was the weather in front of the camera that mattered, not the conditions on the motorway. I was at Turnberry for 24 hours and got a great collection of shots. I know this because I won an award for them and two of the resulting framed images that were hung in the R&A committee and players rooms were stolen by a member of the public. I thought the pictures must be worth something if someone was prepared to steal them. In a strange way, I saw it as a pat on the back.
What golfing legends have you seen and what was your best encounter?
I have photographed plenty of professional golfers at tour events around the world, but in these circumstances you keep a respectful distance from the action. This isn’t an appropriate time to befriend your sporting idols. An organised shoot can be different. I photographed Rory McIlroy last year and had 20 minutes to do a cover shoot, instruction sequences, equipment shots and internal reportage-style photos all with Rory’s people telling me they had to get going. Add in a dull, windy day, and you have the odds stacked against you. It wasn’t the best day at the office, although Rory was extremely polite and courteous. A better day was a shoot with Sandy Lyle at a luxurious castle in the Highlands . Sandy had already given an extended TV interview but was still generous with his time, joking around and being generally very pleasant. The Rory shots made the front cover of the magazine, but I prefer the Sandy shoot.
What kit do you use?
Nothing spectacular. I have two bodies; a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and an EOS-1Ds Mk111. I also have an old 5D Mark that I can’t seem to let go. In terms of glass, I have EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, EF 24-105mm f/4L IS, EF 70-200mm f/4L IS, EF 50mm f/1.8 II and EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro. I mainly use Hoya filters; particularly circular polarisers, and I have a Calumet carbon fibre tripod and a Manfrotto head. On the road, I use a Lowepro travel bag that my dog seems to enjoy curling up next to it in my office, and I have various Canon speedlights and a bag full of light modifiers and memory cards.
What’s the most difficult thing about photographing this genre and how do you get around it?
You are 100% dependent on natural light. And like any landscape photographer will tell you, it has to be the right light. So the age-old rules apply; I shoot first thing in the morning and last thing at night. The problem I find is racing round a golf course trying to get to the right place at the right time to take full advantage of that light. On a commissioned shoot, I will map out the golf course so I know where I need to be and at what time. Although this can often be a frustrating process – especially if the weather is poor or the clouds don’t play ball – it can also be a great thrill knowing you’ve got the shot you wanted.
How do you get your clients?
Much of my work comes through word of mouth or people seeing my images in ad campaigns or in magazines. To be honest, I don’t market myself as much as should. I use social media (my hash tag is #Markphotography) which only goes so far. You simply can’t beat meeting people face to face and chatting over a project or a vision. The problem is there isn’t enough hours in the day. Once I have done an early morning shoot, gone back to the office processed the shots, written my articles and then gone back out again for a late afternoon/evening session, there isn’t a lot of time left over. It’s a poor excuse I know, but it is tricky.
What do you think makes you stand out from other photographers?
That is a difficult question to answer. It’s difficult because I don’t compare myself to other photographers. My number one objective is to create imagery that pleases me. If I can stand back, review what I’ve done and feel my images have an impact, then I know I’ve done something right. I don’t concern myself with what other photographers would have done. I think it is important to focus on your own skills and abilities and bring these to the fore so you create a portfolio that you can be proud of.
You also interview Canon ambassadors, who have you met so far?
Over the years, I have interviewed a lot of talented photographers. It is fascinating to dip into their worlds to find out what makes them tick. People like Danny Green, Flavio Bandiera, Henning Sandström, Joe Petersburger, Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Ziv Koren all have different experiences, goals and tales to tell. Their styles differ entirely but what they share is a passion for photography.