Nick Rains is a professional photographer with over 33 years experience specialising in travel and documentary work. His sublime catalogue of work – which encompasses everything from nature to architecture – has been featured in publications such as Australian Geographic, Outback Magazine and Australian Photography. A dedicated lifelong Leica user, Nick also plays a leading role in the Leica Akademie as Principal Instructor. In the following interview, Nick talks us through his selection of Leica cameras and lenses, and shares his tips for budding travel photographers.
Although you have been featured on the blog before, perhaps you could start off by telling us about how you got into photography?
When I was at university I picked up an interest in photography, shooting various bands that were playing at the University. After I left I had to earn a living so I started shooting houses for estate agents.
After a couple of years of doing that I headed off to Australia for a year and ended up photographing the America’s Cup, this is where I picked up my contacts in the international photography world – that’s when I consider that I became a ‘regular’ professional photographer.
You shoot mainly travel photography and photojournalism. How much of a role did your background in zoology inspire this choice of direction?
Looking back, I don’t think my background in Zoology had much of an effect on my actual career path – a modest Honours degree in Zoology back in the 1980s wasn’t a particularly good career prospect. And besides, being a photographer was much more cool.
You have visited just about every corner of the globe. How do you go about choosing your destinations and is there anywhere you would still love to visit?
There’re two ways that I choose my destinations these days. Firstly some client might decide that they need photographs of a particular place so I’d accept it as a job and go there and photograph it to the best of my abilities. The other way I find places is simply because I would like to go there myself. There are quite a few places around the globe I’d like to go to eventually, Antarctica, South America, Myanmar, the Arctic, Greenland and so on.
From shooting in the rainforest to the sandy dunes of the desert, what would you consider the biggest challenges when working in such harsh environments?
I do quite a lot of photography in harsh environments – in the rainforest, for example, you need to be careful of the humidity. There is nothing worse than coming out of your hotel room into a hot humid tropical environment and having your camera immediately fog up…
Deserts, well that’s all about heat and dust. Heat is more a physical problem, it’s all about me being comfortable and staying healthy. But dust and sand can be absolutely awful for your camera, and particularly with the new mirrorless designs where when you take the lens off you could see the sensor. This means it is very exposed to the elements and changing lenses is something that you have to do very carefully.
Here we have focused on your monochrome photography but how does your choice of colour filters affect your black and white results?
I actually don’t use colour filters when I think in black and white – I shoot colour raw on my Leica SL, and the black-and-white conversions that I do in Lightroom or Photoshop allow me to choose the subtleties of the different colour relationships “in post”. If I was shooting on the M-Monochrom, then certainly I would almost always use yellow or red filters for extra contrast but because I am shooting colour in camera I have the luxury of choosing later.
What do you see as the advantages of shooting monochrome travel photography?
Monochrome travel photography is really about my own work rather than my commercial work. I shoot colour to satisfy the clients and I shoot black-and-white to satisfy myself. Very little work in black-and-white gets published these days, which is a great pity, unless you’re having a fine art exhibition or something. Colour is what’s always required by commercial clients but to please myself, and at the end of the day you have to do some photography for yourself, I much prefer black-and-white with its limits of just textures and shapes. The colour is often a distraction for me.
This selection of photos displays an array of visual effects, which are not a product of the editing process but rather due to mastering your equipment and manual settings. How did you go about creating some of these effects, for example, with the use of ND filters?
The only two filters I really use frequently would be a strong neutral density filter to ‘force’ shutter speeds to be quite long so as to capture the movement of water or clouds. I use a polarising filter occasionally because there is no way of emulating the effects of a polarising filter in post. The way it removes reflections from water, glass and leaves in rainforests is something you simply cannot do later.
You have shot with the Leica S, TL, M and SL systems. How would you define the nuances of each camera and how do you go about choosing what to shoot with?
I have used almost all of the Leica cameras in my career. My current main go-to camera is the Leica SL. Robust body, fast shooting, high-resolution sensor and a very, very robust camera body makes it a workhorse for me. It just gets the job done.
Leica M Monochrom is more than an indulgence for me these days – it’s much smaller than the SL of course and the tiny lenses are the beautiful part about it because I can walk around all day with one body and three lenses and not have to take a bag with me.
I’m very much looking forward to using the new TL2, I haven’t actually seen one yet because they are so new and they’ve been selling so well. I have a trip to Cuba coming up in October and am considering taking just this camera with the 35mm Summilux-M and maybe the two or three of the zoom lenses. This could be an amazingly effective lightweight camera outfit with the same resolution as the SL.
You have been running very successful photography workshops for a while now. How did this come about and what have you been able to take out of the experience?
The photography workshops came about when there was a definite demand by committed enthusiasts to learning the ‘secrets’ – if I can call it that – of professional photographers. I have been conducting such events for about 10 years now and more and more I find that people find the technical side of things quite easy to learn, but it’s the composition and the subtleties of photography that are the hardest to master. Nothing beats going away on a trip with like-minded photographers to really polish your skills. ‘Doing’ is by far the best way to learn.
One thing I have learned from conducting workshops is that if you really want to understand something you should try teaching it. You can’t be expected to explain something to somebody else unless you thoroughly understand it yourself.
If you could offer one piece of advice for other travel photographers what would it be?
I’ve actually got two pieces of advice for other travel photographers. The first one is to make sure that you enjoy the trip. It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the photographic side of travelling. Sometimes you have to sit back, take a moment and just enjoy wherever you happen to be.
The second and more practical piece of advice is to take *less* gear than you think you might need. Taking more gear than you think you might need is extra clutter. If I had to, I could take the Leica SL with its standard zoom and shoot an entire trip on this one lens. There is very little that you cannot handle with that setup. However it’s nice to have some creative choices and I’m big fan of the very wide aperture Leica lenses as well. Love that Noctilux!