Lee Duguid’s picture-taking career began when he and a friend from university joined up for a trip across south-east Asia.
Lee Duguid dates his interest in photography to 2003. Having earned an engineering degree from Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen some years earlier, his first job was with a company that periodically sent him to work on projects in Russia. ‘Working in Russia, I earned a decent amount of money,’ he said, and being in his twenties with a tidy sum in the bank, he decided to do the logical thing – he went travelling for eight or nine months with a friend from uni days.
Although he and his travelling companion were good mates, Lee said their relationship also had a competitive dimension. ‘We always wanted to beat each other at whatever we did,’ he said. ‘He was getting into photography. I was into it as well and as we were travelling together we were trying to outdo each other.’
Eilean Donan Castle, Scotland.
Lee’s father had given him an old Canon film camera and he immersed himself in Richard I’anson’s influential Travel Photography: A Guide to Taking Better Pictures. ‘I was just exploring composition as we were traveling,’ he said.
For Lee, who had grown up in Scotland, the vivid temples, landscapes and ancient cultures of Asia were photographically fascinating. As a qualified engineer, Lee is perhaps not surprisingly a methodical person. As he travelled, he would get his film processed along the way. ‘I had a little portfolio of these 4×6 prints and I would keep renewing it with my best ones. I would hand it out to people I was travelling with and they would give me feedback. I learned a lot from just trying to create this ever-better portfolio.’
After shooting intensively for eight or nine months across Asia, Lee made his way (via Australia) back to London. ‘I wasn’t photographing as much as when I’d been travelling,’ he said of his English hiatus. But after a year or so, he’d picked up a new job in New Zealand – and a familiar pattern was repeated.
‘The flatmate I lived with had an interest in photography and we kind of egged each other on. He loved the technical stuff, which I find very dry, so between us so we kind of figured out how to shoot manual, how to use filters and so on.’
By this stage Lee had exchanged the film camera for his first DSLR, a Canon 350D. He and his flatmate travelled around both the North and South Islands of New Zealand and the experience re-ignited Lee’s passion for photography – particularly of the landscape.
In the late ‘noughties’ he moved to Australia where he continued to work in engineering while at the same time devoting himself to his photography. ‘I’ve spent thousands of hours on it. For a very long time, every single spare moment I’d be out photographing – and Photoshopping when I couldn’t go out. I was building a business, teaching on the weekends and all my holidays were taken up by going out taking photos. It was all-consuming for several years.
‘I built up to where I was earning decent money. I was teaching groups of photographers every other weekend. I was teaching Photoshop and doing some weekend trips away with people too.’
Picnic Rocks, Australia.
And then just as everything was humming along, he accepted a job in France.
It was an opportunity, he hoped, to explore both his landscape and travel photography in a beautiful part of the world. Moving halfway around the world necessarily inserted a pause in his Australian-based photographic activities. Even so, he continued to keep his hand in by, among other things, participating in the AIPP’s annual Australian Professional Photography Awards. A year or two later when he returned to Australia, he qualified for his Master of Photography of the Australian Institute of Professional Photography.
Walls of Jerusalem National Park, Australia
While many photographers are given to waxing lyrical about their photographic philosophy, Lee’s attitude to his own creative endeavours is more cut and dried:
‘I’m definitely not one of the artist types who talk about their photography in a deeper sense. I find that kind of weird,’ he said. ‘I don’t see things in my images. Or that they resonate from my personality or anything like that.
‘It’s the philosophy thing I don’t feel like I have. Obviously I have certain visual preferences and I have a way of post-processing. So, I probably have a style – although it’s not obvious to me. I do like seeing a collection of work and seeing consistency through it.’
While he doesn’t have time for elaborating flowery artistic philosophies, he plainly has a very distinctive and consistent approach that can fairly be described as his own style.
‘I’m always striving to do something different and to perfect what I do. I’m very critical of my own work – and there’s probably a pattern in what I like and who I’m influenced by at the time. But, if I notice myself being influenced, I get angry,’ he laughed.
Lee accepts that there are times when avoiding influences can be difficult. ‘When I went to Iceland, I hated it at first. I loved the country, but I was just so torn. Everywhere I looked, I saw all these shots that had already been taken. I got very frustrated with that and at first really struggled to do something unique.
‘You go to a location, look at all the angles and think, “that’s the angle – unfortunately.” There are no other angles, there’s no way of getting around it. That [particular] composition works because everything within the scene falls into its place. Everything has its own space, the sight lines lead in, and so on. So I will just make sure that I do a better job of it technically. I’ll make it better, I’ll finesse it more in Photoshop to how I want it.’
As even a cursory glance at his work reveals, by ‘finesse’ Lee doesn’t mean making a few minor tweaks here and there. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the intricacies of luminosity masking or creating the Orton effect, it’s plain that his post-processing skills are exceptional. Of course that’s what you’d expect from someone who’s put in thousands of hours mastering the complexities of Photoshop – and who, in recent years has become accomplished enough to teach those skills to other photographers through his workshops.
Lee says that when he’s out shooting he can’t always tell if an image is a keeper. It isn’t until he’s home and at the computer that he finally knows for certain.
‘When I get home [from a shoot] my wife usually says “did you get anything you like?” and I always say “no”. I’m never happy. Sometimes I do think “I’ve definitely got something” – but very rarely. I need it on a big computer screen before I can say “yeah, the composition works there… or there’s some potential in that”. Then I’ll basically take it into Photoshop and spend 15-20 minutes on it – and then chuck it away if it’s not working. Or, if I think “this has got something”, I’ll save it and come back to it later.’
Like many artists, Lee is never quite finished with an image and as his post-processing skills steadily improve, he’ll come back to reinterpret his work once he’s mastered a new technique.
‘I’ve reprocessed an entire library of images, hundreds of photos,’ he said. ‘I’ve gone back to the original raw files, thrown away what I’ve done after I’ve learned new techniques. Every time I felt like I was better, I would delete my old stuff and start again.’
Budir Black Church, Iceland.
Vital as the post-production workflow is to his photography, putting himself in the way of photographic opportunities in the first place – whether they be exotic locales or unusual angles – is essential.
Gesturing toward his portfolio, he said, ‘I have a photo with me from the Iceberg Lagoon in Iceland and it’s an over-under aerial shot. As far as I know, nobody has ever done that.
‘That place has been shot to death. So I thought “okay, how can I put a spin on that…”,’ he said, adding, ‘There are so many people out there doing fantastic photos. But to really call yourself a professional, to differentiate yourself, you need to go the extra mile.’ (See below – Jökulsárlón over-under, Iceland)
Sometimes going the extra mile means lugging an underwater housing to get a different perspective of the aforementioned Icelandic lagoon. Or it can mean abseiling and boulder hopping for hours to reach the Blue Mountains’ spectacular Claustral Canyon.
Claustral Canyon, Australia.
And then there is the snow.
For years, both on Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko and among the French Alps when he lived there he said, ‘I’ve been going to the snow and camping. I definitely prefer winter landscapes because they’re minimalist and have clean lines. And I’ve invested in decent gear to allow me to go up to the mountains to camp in the snow — just because it’s something that not everyone does. I like to push myself to do something that is different. [It was] the same with Claustral Canyon. [Getting there] is a massively limiting factor.’
Although he has a young family to support and a full time engineering job to hold down, Lee’s photographic ambitions appear undiminished. A few weeks after our interview he and the family would be off on a photography-centric trip to Germany, Scotland and the USA.
‘I’ve come to realise that my biggest motivation is travel,’ he said, ‘and if you took the camera away, I’d probably be happy just to travel. Still, I do like to capture what I see and to do something creative with the results.
‘I don’t want to be famous or anything and I don’t necessarily want to be rich. I guess success for me is being recognised within an industry and amongst my peers, and continuing with the AIPP.‘
As someone who thrives on competition, the AIPP’s annual APPAs give Lee the kind of demanding contest of talent he thrives on. ‘It’s definitely hard,’ he said, ‘but it makes me progress as an artist.’ And having achieved Master status he now wants to become a Grand Master. ‘That involves a lot of money, a lot of years and a lot of hard work. But that’s the next thing for me. It’s something to aim for and I know that it’ll keep pushing me in the right direction.’
Jökulsárlón over-under, Iceland
‘Jökulsárlón over-under is a composite comprising of three separate images; a mountain range taken in Norway, an iceberg above water and the water line, as well as part of an iceberg photographed underwater replicated multiple times, flipped and distorted to become a larger more significant object.
‘Some traditionalists may instantly dismiss this photograph as a fabricated, lesser image because it’s a composite. To say this would be unfair, especially considering the time, effort and imagination that went into its creation. I believe a photo should first be taken on its own merit, and Photoshop is simply another tool of the modern photographer.
‘To capture the images that make up this photograph, I took an underwater housing to Iceland with the sole intention of getting this shot. With minimal budget and a thick Scottish skin, I opted to walk into the ice cold Jökulsárlón lagoon in my underwear. With my Aquatech underwater housing cable-tied to my tripod I lasted about 60 seconds before retreating to the shore where my towel and clothes were waiting. I returned to find blood running down my shins, having cut them on the thin surface ice I broke through wading in. The water had instantly numbed my legs so I felt nothing… oops! Determined, I returned again a week later with some more suitable attire – neoprene waders hired from Reykjavik.
‘Between the two shoots I was able to capture enough photos to create what I had visualised: an over-under shot of this iconic location.’
Stars over Sestriere, France.
‘In equal parts I love photography and adventure, so trips that involve both are a perfect fit for me. Some of my best, most popular photographs are those which take the viewer on a journey to a place rarely seen or hard-to-come-by. I realised this after receiving such an incredible response on social media from my photographs taken in Claustral Canyon (read more on my blog).
‘Stars over Sestiere has also been received well, photographed after a few long hours snowshoeing into the mountains, close to our camp where we spent the night. It’s amazing to sleep in the mountains – with the right conditions, snow glows colourfully reflecting the colours of the setting sun and you are away from the bright lights of the city so the stars light up the night sky.
‘Stars over Sestiere is a single exposure of 30 seconds, aperture f/4, ISO 5000. The foreground is sufficiently exposed, aided by the rising moon. I focused a few metres into the scene, using a flashlight to aid manual focus. This, and a wide focal length, gave me sufficient depth of field to render the entire scene in focus.’
Article by Don Norris
Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 75