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Photography Magic with Art Director Phil McDarby

Brown Bag Dublin Art Director Phil McDarby is a regular wizard behind a camera! His instagram is full to the brim with beautiful captures from his adventures into the woods and forests.

We asked him to regail us with a few of his most memorable stories from his shoots and also share some advice for getting that perfect shot!

When did you get into photography?

My Mum gave me a point and click when I was about 16 - old school film, 24 shots. I used it a few times, but didn’t really know what I was doing…I just knew I loved it! Took it out on hikes with friends and even then, found myself photographing trees : )

What gear do you normally use? How have the tools you used changed/evolved?

I’ve moved through about 5 or 6 cameras since I started taking it seriously. My first ‘proper’ camera was a Pentax Optio…just a little point and click digital camera, probably 2 MegaPixel.

Around 2004, having come from 3D and animation, I started getting into matte work - using elements of photography in paintings to really push realism. My first ‘proper’ DLSR was the Canon 400D (Rebel XTi). My pal Kate took me through the basics - all the things to consider when shooting on Manual setting…ISO, Shutter Speed, fStops, all that good stuff. I learned so much in that hour or two - techniques I still use today.

The tools these days are unrecognisable from when I started in earnest in 2007 - the light sensors are so advanced now, the resolution so high - the quality and detail you can achieve is incredible. Really good kit helps! Of course, it’s important to understand the basics of photography - focus, composition, depth of field, exposure - but in all honesty what I’ve found is that the better the camera, the better the shot.

What is it about nature/landscape photography that appeals to you?

I’m still just a bit of a wide-eyed child when it comes to nature. It’s something I’ve always had in me, and it never really went anywhere. I just get blown away by the beauty of the world.

I grew up on science fiction and fantasy, beginning at 5 or 6 with the Faraway Tree series by Enid Blyton. Magical forests, adventures, picnics…all that good stuff. And at the risk of sounding twee…that’s the kind of childhood I had. We would hop over the back wall, cross a field and be in forests within 10 minutes. Was an amazing way to grow up.

Tell us a little bit about your typical shoot day…

Light is everything for me. If I’m not going to get direct sunlight (preferably patchy, with broken cloud), I won’t go out. I just find flat, diffuse light very dull. Unfortunately in Ireland we get a lot of that - particularly in winter. So, if the forecast is good, or I look out the window at dawn on Saturday/Sunday and see chinks of blue - I’ll hop in the car and head off.

When I get to the forest I’m shooting I often have to wait - sometimes for a chunk of time - for sunlight to reach it. It’s always worth it when it arrives. I have three kids so I like to be out and back before they’re up. I’ve become addicted to dawn-chasing!

What’s your favourite capture?

There are so many moments I’ve been really lucky to witness, but summer this year in France was pretty special. I started experimenting with dawn photography, playing with depth of field and exposure, shooting directly into the rising sun…it created these really abstract compositions, all tinged with the blood red of first light. I got the chance to photograph myriad creatures there too.

My favourite encounter was with a fieldmouse and her baby – a real moment to capture.

I tend to overuse the word ‘magic’- anyone who knows me will tell you that : ) But this particular morning in France was so cool. I was crouched down, focused on a Lacewing at the edge of the wood, when I heard a rustle from the brambles. I stayed rock still as a fieldmouse peeked her head out, sniffed, and disappeared back in again. A few seconds later, she emerged, carrying her baby in her mouth.

I was frozen to the spot, determined not to scare her – but couldn’t resist taking some shots. She bounded across the crumbly soil towards a patch of sunlight, seemingly oblivious to me.

I must have moved because I spooked her and she dropped her baby and fled. I was gutted – the little creature was about three centimeters long, utterly defenseless. I remained still, not wanting to scare the baby further.

Another rustle, and the mother reappeared. She edged out and faced me. She held my gaze for good 10 seconds, sizing me up.

Then she made her decision, strode past me and gently picked up her baby. She bounded off without looking back.

Was a really beautiful thing to witness, never mind photograph!

The Lake District in NW England is also a magical place for me – I started visiting in 2012 to research the countryside and forests – I worked as a matte painter on the Peter Rabbit show for a few years - and have been back almost every year since.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to get that perfect shot?

Getting up in the middle of the night so you can be on top of a mountain for dawn… is that crazy? I’ve slid down a few gullies, rolled down a few hillsides, got lost in massive forests (I’ve no sense of direction), got chased by a feral donkey, trespassed on many, many people’s land…fallen into rivers a couple of times.

Wow, that's true commitment to your art! And so, how does your work role affect your photography style or vice versa?

I don’t get much time to do personal work these days but when I do, I combine photography, 3D and digital painting – I guess you would call it Digital Matte painting. Couple of examples below which are a combination of many different things - from photographic textures used as palette/lighting keys and overlays, to full 3D models/renders, projection, straight-up painting…I try to bring all the things I’ve learned over the years together.

And finally, what piece of advice would you share with aspiring nature photographers?

Always, always shoot manual. Never auto. Get to know the settings, get to know your camera. Really, once your ISO is set (as low as possible!) and your fStop is set…you should really only have to think about exposure. I roll one wheel when I’m down on a shot. That’s all I have to worry about. As for photographer tips….be patient. Sometimes light can be really fleeting but it's always worth the wait.

You can see more of Phil's photography HERE.

Anahita Tabarsi

Anahita is Brown Bag Films' Marketing Director, Digital & Social and drinks more than five coffees a day...

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