Paul Cowan - traveler, cook and microstocker
A few words about Paul Cowan. What do you like doing when you're not photographing?
I used to be the editor of a daily newspaper. That put me under considerable stress for many years and encouraged a somewhat cynical view of life, so now I want to develop a more harmonious and tranquil appreciation of the world.
I like to travel, I enjoy studying nature and studying art and composition. I love the countryside. I also spend a lot of time playing with old photographic equipment – professional quality film gear is so cheap today that it's ridiculous. Consequently I have a Leica, a couple of medium format Mamiya TLRs and a large format Crown Graphic among a lot of other stuff. Getting the best from film is an education. I also firmly believe there is a film “look”, which has its own appeal. I don't have many film photos in my portfolio but I've noticed that those I do have tend to sell better than average.
What is your background in photography? Were you formally educated or are you self taught?
I'm the quintessential microstock photographer. I got interested in photography at university in the 1970s but didn't pursue it beyond making family snaps until digital SLRs arrived. Then someone suggested I might be able to make some money in microstock from my new camera so I uploaded some pictures and it just took off. After a few years it became my job.
Food and landscapes do not change in the way that fashions do, so they have the potential to endure. I'm not really very commercial, I shoot what I feel like shooting without trying to follow the latest fashion. I make enough to fund my lifestyle so I approach stock in a very relaxed way – I'm no longer hungry for fame and fortune the way some people are. I'm lazy, or maybe I should say I'm semi-retired.
Aladdin's lamp was one of my first stock shots and still gets occasional sales. If the flame looks real, that's because it was. I envisaged the blank area created by the flame as providing space for copy in a pantomime advert. It pays to have an idea of how an image can work for a designer.
Fruit is a timeless subject but as it is easy to obtain the competition is stiff. Even so, a good shot can still sell.
Do you have a favorite photographer of all times and why do you like him/her so much?
I've got tremendous admiration for Sebastiao Salgado. Not only are his compositions and use of light fabulous, the humanitarian aspect of his work makes it of great social importance. It's a paradox to see suffering and death presented so beautifully but by being art as well as reportage the message becomes more enduring.
You have very many yummy food images in your portfolio. What is your ideal setup for foods shots? Do you rely on natural or artificial light? Which one do you prefer?
It's a myth that there is a difference between natural and artificial lighting. Any differences are a result of the way you handle it. Get artificial lighting right and nobody will know it isn't natural – but that comment tells you that a natural light effect is the ideal you have to work towards.
I spend most of the year in Arabia, where the light is very harsh and windows are tinted to try to cut out glare, so natural light isn't really an option. I generally use flash with a reflector. I may use backlighting through a polythene table to create isolations or a second flash for “bulb lighting” to fill shadows.
For my first few years in stock I used small desk lamps with a white paper background and exposures were often several seconds long. I've got shots from those days that still sell quite well. As long as the white balance, lighting ratios etc. are correct it really doesn't matter what the source of light is.
Of all the various cuisines you've experienced, name a few favorite dishes and spices. Also, of all those delicious dishes you've photographed, did you actually taste them all?
I cook and eat pretty much everything I shoot. It's been a long-running culinary adventure and I've lear#ned as much about cooking as I have about photography. Often, the simplest recipes are the best. I recently discovered lemon chicken, which is superb. Traditional English steak and kidney pudding take me back to my granny's kitchen. Cajun seasoning is fabulous; so are garlic salt and balsamic vinegar – all in their right place, of course.
My standard set-up is a Canon 5D MkII with a 24-70 f2.8L and the 70-200 f2.8L, a polarising filter, a flash and a set of macro tubes. I'm quite likely to be carrying a film camera, too: a Pentacon Six, a Mamiya TLR or maybe a little folding rangefinder from the 1940s. I started off shooting stock with a Digital Rebel and the kit lens, so things have got a lot heavier.
Which country you liked best and why? Which country you had most fun taking pictures in? And which country you would recommend for photographers in terms of landscapes, topics, light etc?
Every country has wonderful opportunities to offer to a photographer. Of course, Greece and Italy have fabulous landscapes and architecture and sometimes the most amazing light, but there are photographic opportunities all around us. It's just a question of seeing.
You've seen many places, different types of people and cultures so we were wondering: have you ever had an unusual incident due to cultural differences? Is it difficult for a photographer to adjust to such differences?
The most difficult trip was a Press tour to South Korea. Apart from nearly giving the manager of one of their companies apoplexy by our group being late and holding up lunch (“What would my wife say, what would my wife say?” the poor man kept repeating), their obsession with feeding us kimchi – cabbage rotted down with fish and hot peppers – at every meal was awful. Foreigners often become addicted to kimchi if they live in Korea but the initial reaction to it is revulsion.
A piece of advice for beginners.
For beginners in microstock, think about how your image might be useful to an advertiser. For beginners in photography, study lighting.
We'd like to thank Paul Cowan for taking the time to answer our questions.
Photo credits: Paul Cowan.
Camera equipment: New and Old