Both a retired professional karate instructor and PADI Scuba Diving Instructor, Ray Bilcliff now devotes himself to nature photography. A favorite location is near his home on the North East coast of England. The leap from karate international Grandmaster to nature photographer might seem huge, but consider Gichin Funakoshi’s words, “The ultimate aim of marital arts lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants”. If Bilcliff’s photography is an illustration of that principle, he has reached the summit. His work is breathtaking. His use of light, unparalleled.
I started photography in the year 2000 when I was working as a scuba diving instructor in the Cayman Islands. I started with a small camera by Sony, a DSC-1 and 3mp. It was their very first camera. I wanted it to take pictures just casually on a day to day basis, but I soon got hooked. When I looked at the pictures I was taking I could always see a way to make them better but I had to learn more about photography to do this. I watched every YouTube video on all aspects of photography. As Sony got more into the camera market they introduced better cameras so I upgraded as much as I could afford to. We all know that a good photographer makes the picture, and the camera takes the picture. But a better quality camera will always take better quality pictures. I think the greatest help I had when learning was through the YouTube videos, and then shooting everything I could see, then doing it every day."Ray Bilcliff
Kujaja: What were the difficulties you encountered when you began your photography journey?
RB: Getting from 'A' to 'M' on the camera dial, and understanding what the journey was all about. But the toughest part of photography is understanding light and exposure. That journey will never end.
Kujaja: What is the most challenging part about being a photographer?
RB: First is patience. Second is imagination. And third is going out when the weather is bad.
Kujaja: How do you deal with unsuitable weather conditions?
RB: Check with the local weather forecast and be on location when the weather is about to break. This is when the light is at its best. And it is ALL about the light. But in stormy weather one must take care of oneself and equipment. Get out in the golden hours and do it every day.
Kujaja: Which photographers have influenced your thinking, photography, and career path?
RB: No single person comes to mind but I look at lots of photographers work and when I see a great work I will really try hard to figure out what makes it so great.
Kujaja: Can you identify a unifying theme or recurring thread running throughout your photography?
RB: Exposure and light is what my work is all about.
Kujaja: How do you choose the places where you shoot?
RB: When I see an image that catches my eye it will probably be from a place I want to go to. There are some places that just have to be visited at least once in your life.
Kujaja: When you are out shooting, how much of it is instinctual versus planned?
RB: Planned trips are great, we call these holidays. But when you visit the same places every day over and over, it is all down to Mother Nature and your ability to capture it. I shoot on my local beach every day and every photo is different.
Kujaja: For you how important is content versus form in photography. Do you think for you one plays a stronger role than the other?
RB: Both are as equal as can be. Content without form would be a picture. But content with form will be a great picture.
Kujaja: How does black and white vs. color play into your work?
RB: I never shoot a black and white photo. I will convert to black and white in Photoshop, but only if I am not happy with the color.
Kujaja: What is your opinion regarding film vs. digital photography?
RB: Digital wins hands down, it is possible to take hundreds of pictures of the same thing and it costs no more. It is also instant gratification and anyone can do it. The digital world is only going to get better.
Kujaja: Do you think a photographer must have ‘natural talent’ to become a great photographer?
RB: I would say yes, but not a 'must have'. I used to do oil painting so I must have an artistic streak. I would say that, like most things, it should come naturally to you. But probably the greatest factor is a need to learn and an understanding that the learning curve goes on forever.
Kujaja: Do you think gear really matters when trying to make that great picture?
RB: One should always buy the best gear one can afford. But the most expensive camera in the world cannot 'create' a single picture. It can only take what it is pointed at.
Kujaja: What are your photography ‘must haves’ (without this/these, I will not shoot)?
RB: A tripod is the number one. Also a selection of lenses all with a Circular Polarizing filter attached, two good quality ND filters #4 and #10, and spare batteries and memory cards.
Kujaja: RAW or JPG and why?
RB: RAW is the only way to go. This gives you the most photo information for you to work with.
Kujaja: How has social media played a role in your photography?
RB: I show my work on lots of photography sites like Google Plus, Kujaja and 500px. It is always a good feeling to have your work admired and these sites are a great way to show them off.
Kujaja: What type of images do you view as overdone, or too common?
RB: Any photo with good composition can be processed with different formats to improve the image. But over processing is a bad thing.
Kujaja: Who inspires you other than photographers?
RB: People who can invent programs like Adobe Photoshop. And people like Susan Boyle and Paul Potts, ordinary people with awesome natural talent who took their best shot.
Kujaja: What do you consider your greatest photographic accomplishment?
RB: Getting up every day at dawn.
Kujaja: What are your photography weaknesses?
RB: Exposure is something I am never happy with. I am always trying to improve on nature.
Kujaja: Is there any particular genre/style of photography you would like to learn about and try?
RB: I like to stick to what comes naturally to me and that is nature photography.
Kujaja: What are some tips/advice you would give to yourself if you started photography all over again?
RB: Get out and shoot more often and use a lot more imagination.
Kujaja: And, finally, what is one question no one has ever asked you that you wish they had asked you?
RB: Why did I choose Sony over Nikon and Canon.
Do yourself a favor and check out Ray's website where he offers a collection of tutorials and free e-books - Bailey
Kujaja: Thank you for this interview Ray.