OK folks, buckle up for a flight over the Grand Canyon, it’s time to interview Alan Brock. I started watching Alan off the back of Ben Horne’s YouTube channel; that’s not an unusual story as the two have done a few crossover videos and appear with each other occasionally.
Alan is another YouTuber who very much has his own style. I particularly like the fact that he does large format black and white landscapes and the obvious comparisons to Mr. Adams do apply. I hope you enjoy this chat as much as I did.
RD: You are a landscape photographer who uses large format equipment in the West and Southwest United States. What got you started in large format? Why did you choose to specialise in what is often seen as a difficult and expensive format?
AB: It was a combination of things that got me started in large format photography. To begin, about 8 years ago I took a trip to Hawaii. At this point I was strictly a digital photographer; I didn’t even know film still existed. On this trip, I was determined to come away with some EPIC landscape photos!! However, I really didn’t understand what it took to scout for compositions or wait for proper light.
I took my photos and they were decent, but not great. Undeterred, I proceeded to throw every Photoshop technique I knew at the images. They were definitely over-the-top, so of course, they got lots of “likes” on social media, but I knew I had not done a good job capturing the landscape of Maui. I needed to really learn the craft of landscape photography.
Around that time I came across an image by Rodney Lough Jr. in a magazine. The image was stunning, but not in a hyper-edited manner. It drew my attention because of its detail and the quality of light. I knew that even on my best day, I was incapable of capturing an image like that. So I did what every photographer does…I researched what camera he used to make the image!! Because cameras take photographs, right? I found out that he used something called a large format camera. Being familiar with medium format digital cameras, and their associated price, I envisioned some massive digital back that cost well into 6 figures.
You can imagine my surprise when a Google search showed me “old-timey” cameras that were actually quite affordable. I’ve always had an affinity for the smaller, niche areas of any hobby I participate in, so I was immediately drawn to this relatively obscure branch of photography. As I researched more about large format, I repeatedly came across photographers talking about “waiting for light” and “slow, and methodical.” Based on the Hawaii trip and what I needed to learn to become a better photographer, moving into large format seemed a natural progression for my photography. Keep in mind, I haven’t shot the first bit of film at this point. So I went straight from digital photography to buying a large format camera!
RD: As a black and white photographer myself, I love that you have a number of monochrome images in your portfolio. I am thinking of Heaven’s View, Journey’s End and Where Angels Tread particularly. What makes you decide to go for a black and white image rather than a colour one? What goes through your head when you are composing?
AB: I love black and white photography! As I was getting into large format, I bought many of Ansel Adams’ books and studied his images. I really don’t have much of a system for deciding which film to use; I just try to envision what the final image will look like and go from there.
I’ve found that being able to shoot black and white opens up so many more options for photography, specifically the ability to shoot more in the middle of the day where color film is often not a viable option. I feel that I’m still very much a novice when it comes to monochrome photography, but I often find that a well done black and white image can be even more compelling than a color image.
As far as composition goes, I really don’t notice that much difference between what I look for in black and white versus color. Simplicity is often what I aim for. Give me a leading line between the foreground and background and I can give you an image! Some photographers, my friend Justin Lowery comes to mind, are able to look at a chaotic scene and make compelling images from it. I don’t feel that this is a strong suit of mine. Instead, I try to search for order; I like to find elements in nature that form lines or natural frames and then work from there.
It’s interesting that large format has helped me refine my compositions immensely. With the image projected upside down and backward on the ground glass, I find myself paying more attention to all parts of my composition, but especially the borders. This of course can be done with any format camera, but I’ve found that the ground glass forces me to pay more attention to detail.
RD: Tell us a bit about the Cessna, that seems to be as much of a passion as the photography is, and something really unique that you bring to your channel.
AB: The Cessna is a bit of a new addition to my YouTube channel, but I’ve actually been a pilot longer than I’ve been a photographer! The plane I fly now is a Cessna 210. It’s a six-seat, retractable gear airplane that is kind of known for its ability to haul a lot of gear at relatively fast speeds. This is especially important considering all the gear I need to take on my longer photography trips!
For many years after I got my pilot’s license, I just rented planes from local airports. This is an excellent way to fly at a relatively low expense (let’s face it, nothing in aviation is exactly cheap!) in that you only pay when you fly. However, you can’t really take these planes on long trips, and they’re relatively slow. About 5 years ago I started kicking around the idea of flying myself to Zion. However, I needed something different than a rental plane. I knew the people that owned the plane I currently have, and it just so happened that they were looking for an additional partner on this plane. So I bought in, and it’s really just the perfect situation. The three of us split costs, but the plane is still pretty much available whenever I need to fly it.
My passion for flying is every bit the same as my passion for photography. The joy I get from seeing everything from above is really difficult to describe, but it’s something that never gets old. I can still vividly remember the sheer joy I had when flying over Zion for the first time. It just gives you a completely different perspective on the park. It’s also something that I enjoy sharing and look forward to sharing aviation in Zion in the years to come. If you’re a photographer in the Zion area in the fall and want an aerial tour, let me know!!
RD: I love the ‘frenemies’ thing you have going on with another of my interview victims, Ben Horne. It’s a lot of fun and I am following your Zion Battle on Instagram. How did you and Ben first meet? Are you connected through your love of photographing Zion?
AB: I came across Ben the way most people do: YouTube! When I first received my large format camera from eBay, I quickly realized that this endeavor had a learning curve. So naturally, I looked up large format on YouTube. There was this guy who, despite his mediocre beard, just did an incredible job in his videos of capturing what it felt like to be in a location. I had never been to Zion (or to any part of the American Southwest) but after watching Ben’s videos I genuinely felt like I had been to Zion. Being new to large format, I reached out to him on social media with some questions here and there.
We actually met in person for the first time in the Narrows in 2014 I believe; that was my second trip to Zion and maybe around his 5th. He was no longer shooting 4×5 at that time and had some leftover film which he generously offered to give me. So the first time I ever met Ben he was delivering me some film! The best thing I can say about Ben is that the person you see on YouTube is the exact same person you get in real life. He’s a really gifted photographer, but also genuinely helpful to everyone in large format. His ability to capture the feeling of a location, both through images and video, is unrivalled. He will cheat at the occasional push-up contest though so you’ve got to keep your eye on him…
We are definitely connected through our love for Zion. In fact, it’s an old image of his in the Narrows that inspired me to go to Zion in the first place. We live on different sides of the US so outside of Zion we don’t get to see each other very often, but we stay in contact throughout the year and always try to somewhat coordinate our time in Zion. (It’s interesting to see how the community of large format photographers in Zion has grown over time.) Outside of Zion, we’re friends because I think we share a similar love for the outdoors. And Star Trek…can’t forget Star Trek.
RD: How much time do you get to spend on your photography? Do you have a full-time job and fit the photography in around that, or is this your full-time gig? Or something in between?
AB: As evidenced by my sporadic posting on YouTube, I don’t get to spend a ton of time on photography. I’m a dentist so I definitely have a full-time job that takes a lot of time away from photography. Not that I resent that, but it’s just the way it is right now. Oh yeah, and I’ve got kids…a little girl and twin boys. I feel like no one adequately prepares you for just how much time kids take!! Again, not that I resent that at all; in fact, I absolutely love the fact that I can take my kids on outdoor adventures with me! I’m planning to introduce my daughter to Zion maybe as soon as next year. It’s just the way life is for me.
As far as treating photography as a job or business, I’ll occasionally enter my work in local exhibits, but I don’t really push much for sales. As my kids get older and I have more time when they’re in school, I’ll ramp up my participation in art shows and my YouTube work, but as of right now I don’t have intentions of becoming a full-time photographer. I don’t think I could ever make enough to pay for airplane gas!!
RD: Can you recommend some YouTubers that you love? It’s a great resource for budding photographers and old hands alike, I am trying to spread the love as wide as possible 🙂
AB: I have VERY eclectic YouTube viewing habits! Honestly, as far as budding photography channels, I don’t actually follow any. In fact, I don’t really follow that many photographers on YouTube. Part of that is just due to limited time. I mostly follow aviation channels as flying is a mental game, and even if I just pop on a video as I’m driving in my car, just listening to the pilot speak to Air Traffic Control helps keep me sharp. Also, I follow flat earth debunking channels…long story. 🙂
RD: mental note…ask Alan about flat earthers
RD: What can we expect in the future fro Alan Brock on YouTube and elsewhere? I know you are heading off to Zion shortly (at the time of writing), will we be seeing video from there? Do you have anything else planned?
AB: I have a very specific goal to be more involved on YouTube in the coming year. The kids are at an age now where they’re in school and I’ll have more time in the coming year to devote to photography. I don’t quite know what to do with the flying videos though. I really enjoy making them, and I feel they’re pretty decent as far as flight vlogs go. But they just don’t get ANY views. That’s understandable as I’m a photography channel. I attempted to split them off into a dedicated aviation channel, but that had a few issues that I need to work out. However, one way or the other, in 2020 I’m going to be much more involved on YouTube.
I also have a photography project planned that is quite a bit different than the landscape work I do. I’m going to try to capture small, local airports in my area on large format film. I haven’t decided exactly how I’m going to go about that yet, but I’m thinking about shooting it all in black and white. I’ve honestly never attempted a project like that before so I’m really looking forward to that! (RD: me too, sounds awesome, especially the black and white part!)
I’ve just recently returned from Zion and it was quite the trip! It was a bit of a different year this year and I learned some important lessons that will make future trips go a lot smoother. I have received the film back and am happy with the way the images turned out. I would go into more detail, but you all will just have to watch on YouTube! 🙂
RD: Finally, the obvious gear question. What camera(s) and film stocks do you use, and what do you use to film your YouTube channel? I love the shots form the Cessna’s wing – how do you get those?
AB: So let’s talk gear. First, the film stuff. My primary camera is a Shen Hao HZX-IIa 4×5. Fun fact, I can NEVER remember the model of that camera! When people ask, which Shen Hao I use and I always either have to Google it or just say I don’t know. It’s a disaster of a naming scheme, but a beautiful camera! I modified it with a Maxwell Screen ground glass which was expensive, but money well spent. It’s SO bright, which is useful for the subjects and time of day I shoot. (RD: please follow the link to Alan’s article on the Maxwell, it’s fascinating and really shows the benefits)
My backpacking camera is the Intrepid 4×5 MK2. Love that little camera. It takes a beating in my backpack and just keeps going. I added a generic fresnel lens to that to help the ground glass. Not as bright as the Maxwell Screen, but it gets the job done.
I carry two lenses typically: a 90mm Fujinon f/5.6 and a 180mm Nikkor f/5.6. The Nikkor is a touch sharper, but the 90 really fits the way I see things. I probably use it for about 80% of my photos. For film, I carry 3 different stocks: Fujifilm Velvia 50, Kodak Ektar 100, and ILFORD Delta 100 Professional. Love, love, love Velvia! It’s so satisfying to look at underneath a loupe. I have a decent stock in my freezer, but it’s probably time to rest apply. I’ve gradually come around to appreciate Ektar. It can be difficult to scan, but if you make sure to give it plenty of exposure, it usually turns out fine. I send my color film off to a lab to be developed, but I develop my own black and white at home. Another satisfying aspect of large format is seeing your images on black and white film when you pull it from the fixer; that’s something else that never gets old!
The vlog stuff is fun to play with. My primary camera is a Panasonic GH5. Perfect for vlogging and really quite amazing what it can do for its size. This year I added a slider to my kit. The jury is still out on that. I love the shots it gave me, but it’s a real hassle to set up and take down in the environment I’m usually in. When I’m flying, I always have 4 GoPros set up at various points in the plane. Three of the are in the cockpit, and as you said, one is mounted to the wing. I trigger that one with a remote that works pretty well. The audio from the headsets feeds into one of the GoPros and then I have to sync everything together and find the footage where anything interesting is happening. It’s a bit tedious, but I really enjoy vlogging the flights.
RD: Thanks Alan, that was a lot of fun and really informative. I am excited for the airport series, I think that has a lot of potential. If I lived closer (I am in the UK) I would probably take him up on his offer of an aerial tour, so if you live closer to Alan, I reckon this is a chance not to miss!!
I want to take a moment to say a massive THANK YOU to all of the Add to Queue interviewees that I have had the great pleasure to work with thus far. Everyone has been a pleasure and it has been a personal honour (yes, that’s a U in there!) to work with some of the people that I admire so much for there YouTube channels. We are nowhere near the end yet though, so keep those recommendations and requests coming and remember, if you have a channel yourself just get in touch and we can get you included.
Finally, thank you to our international man-of-mystery, the sweary bond villain in his volcano base, the beast in the east, EM! He encourages me no end to both continue with this series and in my other crazy ideas, plus he provides this awesome resource for us all that we treasure so much.
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