People and place – An interview with fine art photographer Michaela Simpson


People and place – An interview with fine art photographer Michaela Simpson

Michaela Simpson | Professional Photographer

Michaela is a commercial and fine art photographer who runs her own photography business. We recently spoke to Michaela about her work and her passion for photography.

Hamish Hawk - SIGMA 105mm F2.8 DG DN | Art - © Michaela Simpson

Tell us a bit about yourself?

I’d describe myself as a Scottish photographer of people and placeI’ve been a freelancer for around fifteen years or so and worked in-house for a large music and events venue in Edinburgh for almost half of that time – great people and memories.  In 2015, the BIPP awarded me Press & PR photographer of the year and also runner up in the portrait category.

You’ll see from my portfolio that I don’t really fall into any one category or type of photography. I feel lucky that my hobby is also my job. A change of lifestyle and welcome change of pace has allowed me to concentrate on more personal work. I get a huge amount of pleasure and sense of wellbeing from creating imagery.

I met my husband, an accomplished writer and documentary photographer, through photography. Although our styles are very different, we’ve worked successfully on various projects for many years. Our holidays always include a photographic element to them.

Collaborating with others on ongoing creative projects is incredibly rewarding. I’ve been working with Post Electric Artists for a couple of years now, mainly shooting Radio 6 music favourite, Hamish Hawk, the name of the band and also the singer/songwriter frontman. I love their music and Hamish is an absolute joy to work with. For me, live music, photography and seeing your work published somewhere or on an album or EP covers never gets old.

I love this quote from Maya Angelou – “You cant use up creativity. The more the you use, the more you have.”

Tell us how your photographic journey started?

I’ve always enjoyed taking photographs but I began to take it seriously when I went to an evening class to learn about black and white film photography in the early noughties. My first DSLR was the Canon EOS 450D. Moving to digital was a step change, it allowed me to begin learning the craft in-depth; experimenting, observing and evaluating happened much faster than with film.

Like many photographers in the early stages, friends, family and acquaintances see your work and start asking you shoot for them. In 2009 I was able to give up my day job in marketing and pursue photography pretty much full-time.

Looking back there were a couple milestones, the first, early on was discovering the educator Damien Lovegrove, his knowledge of light is second to none, and I was lucky enough to attend a couple of his courses. For me it’s always about the light, finding it, modifying it, creating it, feeling it, capturing it.

Then switching to SIGMA Art lenses around ten years ago. Music and event venues by nature are very dark so I needed something that could cope with those tricky shooting conditions. The first lens I used was the 50mm F1.4 DG HSM | A for Canon EF, then I added the 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art, then the 70mm F2.8 DG MACRO | Art. Something magical happens when I use my SIGMA lenses. Over the years I’ve switched systems and have shot with SIGMA each time. I currently use Sony full frame mirrorless cameras and have several of the Art lenses, the SIGMA 105mm F2.8 DG DN MACRO | Art is my favourite, it’s the best lens I’ve ever used, although the 24-70 F2.8 DG DN isn’t far behind it. 

I’m a member of a handful of photographic groups and the RPS. When I’m asked for advice on what lens to buy, I will always recommend trying SIGMA.

Jake Bugg - SIGMA 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art - © Michaela Simpson

Your portfolio covers a wide range of photographic disciplines. Do you have one in particular that you enjoy the most?

For me that’s a tricky question to answer, picking one is almost impossible. I think it’s the artistic discipline in and of itself that I enjoy the most rather than any one specific area. I’m fortunate that my husband shares my passion and we head off on photographic trips several times a week, and if the weather is bad, we have a small studio space at home for digital editing, still life, scanography, film developing, printing and the like. It makes life fun, heading out on shoots is so much easier when you have a shared interest.   

My seascape work is solely for me, for my health and wellbeing. An early alarm, a loose plan and off we go. There are some great apps to help you get the most out of each shoot. I always come home on a legal high from those days. I also enjoy photographing gardens and flowers, I’m a keen gardener – tulips and dahlias are always a highlight. I’ve photographed our local Maggie’s Garden many times and donate my images to them. It’s designed by Chelsea Gold winner Sarah Price, and in Spring it comes alive in a blaze of orange, it’s a beautiful and contemplative space. Derek Jarmin’s garden is another that I’ve photographed many times, another very special place.

Apart from live music my other love is shooting portraits on film as well as digital. I have all of Jane Bown’s books and have a signed copy of ‘Faces – The Creative Process Behind Great Portraits’. I was given an original Olympus OM1 as a gift from my husband. I’ve been working on a long-term portrait project using the same equipment as Jane and produced a small Zine of personal work called ‘Maitani’ after the OM1 designer.

Lastly, I do pretty much all of our studio printing, we have a Canon PIXMA Pro-1 printer which I bought when I was going through a phase of making encaustics and now, I use it mainly to proof work and for my Japanese bound bookmaking. Learning to print is another huge learning curve, and just as rewarding. Nothing beats seeing your images coming off the printer just as you’d imagined them. Some say that it’s not a photograph until it’s printed.

Sissinghurs - SIGMA 105mm F2.8 DG DN Macro | Art - © Michaela Simpson
Prospect Cottage - SIGMA 105mm F2.8 DG DN Macro | Art - © Michaela Simpson

Your most recent photography project ‘From the Sea to the Land’ captures the beautiful Tynemouth coastline. What did you look for when composing your images for this project?

Photographing there is so much fun – we’re lucky to have a home a five-minute drive from the UK’s best kept secret which is the Northumberland coastline.

Photographing seascapes is such a mindful activity and suits my personality; reflective, careful and thoughtful. I’ve been acquiring the Lee Filter system over the last couple of years; I know long exposure images are a bit cliched (isn’t everything?), but the process of deciding what you’re going to shoot, setting up, how you want the image to look and so on, is so enjoyable and I find really relaxing. As far as composing I have no pre-conceived ideas, most often it’s what’s happening with the light and the clouds that will determine how my composition will look. Funnily enough, blue hour and golden hour rather than sunrise or sunset feature more in my work than anything else.

Having looked through my images, I do seem to favour wide angle lenses for the big vistas. I’ve been experimenting more with full-on panoramas; they can be quite tricky but very rewarding when you’ve nailed it. My go to lens is the SIGMA 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN | Art for Sony, it covers most bases for me as I’m not too keen on changing lenses on a beach.

And on the upside, people seem to like what I create and want to buy prints which is lovely. But to be honest I create the work for myself first and foremost.

Isle of Tiree: An Turas - SIGMA 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN | Art - © Michaela Simpson
Herd Groyne - SIGMA 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN | Art - © Michaela Simpson

Where do you look for inspiration?

Travel, architecture, design, the cinema, gardens, the landscape, the coastline, other artists, painters and photographers, the list goes on.

We try and go to the cinema regularly, arthouse and mainstream. Visiting places with interesting architecture and good design – Berlin was a highlight. Galleries, large or small, again living here we have the likes of the Baltic the Laing and the Hatton Gallery on our doorstep. We also have an annual pilgrimage to see Turner in January at the RSA, Edinburgh. I also have a fairly large collection of photographic books.

In 2014 – Road Trip: Photography of the American West was showing at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux. We came across the show by accident, saw the title and headed in. The walls were adorned by the work of Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Robert Frank, Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Dennis Hopper and many, many others. We had the space to ourselves and couldn’t believe our luck. Seeing the gelatin silver print of Migrant Mother up close left a lasting impression.

Recently, the Photographers’ Gallery, London and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art ran the Chris Killip (1946-2020) retrospective. I visited both and the Baltic one several times. Some haunting images, especially “Simon being taken to sea”.

The one exhibition that has stayed with me was the Paul Strand show ‘Photography and Film for the 20th Century’ at the V&A, London in 2016. The work he made in Italy and the Outer Hebrides are probably my favourite and the most inspirational of his work.

There are contemporary photographers that inspire me for all sorts of reasons, and I follow them on social media, YouTube, and listen to their podcasts.  Margaret Soraya, Sean Tucker, Rachael Talibart, Jonathan Chritchley and Nick Carver are current favourites.

Cottage South: Uist - SIGMA 24-70 F2.8 DG DN | Art - © Michaela Simpson

Tell us about your upcoming project to the Outer Hebrides inspired by photographer Paul Strand and his book Tir a’Mhurain

We visited the Outer Hebrides in 2022, travelling from Lewis in the North to Eriskay in the South.  It took us three attempts to get there because of the pandemic. We finally made it in late summer that year and had the most incredible photographic trip, topped off by some glorious weather. The cover of Tir a’Mhurain has some ponies in the landscape, finding them and photographing them was one of the many highlights of that trip. My expectations were ridiculously high but the islands far exceeded anything I could’ve imagined.

A return visit is being planned at the moment. We’re heading off to the Uists for a month of photography later this year. I’ve been incredibly lucky in that I have local contacts who have understood and embraced the project and are helping with the planning, logistics and making contact with the relevant people.

I don’t want to jinx it by giving away too much at the moment, but once firm plans are in place, I’ll be able to talk about it in more detail, but what I can say is that so far everything is falling into place nicely.  

Bridal - SIGMA 35mm F1.4 DG HSM | Art - © Michaela Simpson

Would you have any tips for photographers who are looking to start selling and exhibiting their own work?

Being true to yourself and making work that is authentic is always a good place to start. It can be quite liberating if you can get your head around the fact that not everyone will like what you do, so create what excites you. There are some cost-effective web builder options now that have straightforward websites with an online sales option, Squarespace and Pixieset are just two that spring to mind.

Putting yourself out there can be daunting and expensive. Make a plan of what you’re trying to achieve, with a budget and within realistic timescales. Begin by making contacts and building relationships locally with people like framers, printers, galleries, coffee shops, independent retailers. Don’t be afraid to ask, all they can do is say ‘no’ but once in a while you’ll get a yes or they’ll pass your details on to someone else who may be able to help. I personally believe that the more we go down the digital and AI route the more value will be placed in a physical print made by a photographer and artist, establishing those relationships is key. My first show was in a local cafe in Aberdeen, after I sent them an email with some images and asked if I could show some work and they said ‘yes’.

Social media is a great way find out about competitions and calls for entry to exhibitions. Or get together with some like-minded photographer friends and have a group show. It’s a great way to get work exhibited.

Getting some proper guidance, whether that be in marketing, sales, or graphic design, I guarantee it will save you time and energy. It can all seem a bit overwhelming but get the best advice you can from a professional. If you can’t afford to pay for that advice you can always do some photography for them in return. We’ve all gone down the internet rabbit hole too many times, trying to become experts in different fields. Try to get out with your camera making work and building those relationships and not be stuck in front of a computer screen for too long.

Luck does play a part in all of this, being in the right place at the right time. However, the harder we work the luckier we seem to get.

Using only one word, describe what photography means to you.

I honestly can’t, but I can let you choose from the following. Happiness. Fulfilment. Joy. Growth. Light. 

Valenine Bouquet - SIGMA 24-70mm F2.8 DG DN | Art - © Michaela Simpson

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