August 25, 2020
Rob Wilson is a hard person to miss. Tall and slender, with dark, shoulder-length hair, he carries himself with the ease of someone well-adjusted to Vancouver Island life. Which is to say, he's late for a Saturday morning coffee, but time is a relative matter on the island. He's cheery, and it's contagious — the kind of charm that comes in handy when coaching subjects in front of the camera.
A Victoria, British Columbia-based photographer, Wilson grew up in the nearby Cowichan Valley. His work has appeared in Digital Camera and Photolife, and been shortlisted for the Sony World Photography Awards' Open Travel Competition. A sought-after lifestyle and portrait photographer, Wilson describes his style as "film-inspired posed candid": a nostalgic twist on the in-between moments when his subjects forget the camera's there.
At Focal, we're big fans of Rob's — he's been on-board since the beginning. We caught up with him to talk about getting a foothold in the industry, how he's adapted his business to the COVID-19 pandemic, and why "the best camera is the one you have."
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
Rob Wilson: I first got into photography in 2012. You know, when I was in high school, I always thought I'd be a lawyer. But then I took a gap year after graduating, and I went to Europe, just backpacking. I picked up a really cheap point-and-shoot — a crappy little camera — and I loved it so much. The camera ended up breaking two weeks before I came home, so when I got home, I bought a DSLR — a mid-entry level Nikon D5100 — with leftover money I had and just started doing it for fun: taking photos of friends, hiking, just hanging out.
I never really considered it [could be] a career. I thought maybe I'd do journalism, because I like writing [too]. I went to school at VIU and took a double-minor in journalism and digital media, but I didn't end up finishing, because I took another gap year with my girlfriend to go travelling. We did a big road trip over six months; we ended up driving down to Panama City. And that really inspired me to try photography [as a career] — just jump into it. I started slowly doing jobs and getting paid to do it. And I just haven't [looked] back since. It's been working out well enough.
RW: For me, it’s just very dynamic. Every job is different. Even though weddings often follow a formula, even then, it’s [still] different. Photography allows a freedom of expression, as well as ever-changing situations. Something about photography, the medium, really spoke to me. And I associated it with that after high school [feeling]: that taste of freedom, that youthfulness.
That’s kind of my artist statement: to capture those fleeting moments of youthfulness. You don’t have to be shooting youth, but still, there’s that feeling — like a late summer evening. That kind of vibe. To me, just being able to capture that piece of time in such a way is fun.
RW: I would describe my style as film-inspired posed candid. Whether it's brand work or weddings, I always find my favourite photos are not necessarily the really constructed, set-up, posed ones. To me, it’s usually those in-between [moments]. That transition, or movement versus posed.
I like to prompt a scene, prompt the subject, and then kind of go from there. I know some photographers are like, 'We’re going to do this exactly.' [They’ll] set up a bunch of lights and do a very magazine-style shoot. That’s just not me. I have nothing against that, of course; some people love that. But for me, I like that more fluid, more dynamic, more authentic posed candid [look].
Some clients don’t need any prompting at all; they can just naturally do them in such a way that it looks really good on camera. Other clients… I have a lot of wedding clients, for example, where they say, ‘We’re not good on camera…’ but most of the time, everyone’s good on camera. People think they’re going to look funny, or [it’s the] classic, ‘What do I do with my hands?’ But most of the time, once you get into a little bit of a flow, people are great. They don’t really need much prompting at all; they can just be themselves.
RW: When I first started photography, I was really into Andrew Kearns, Alex Strohl, Forrest Mankins, Jared Chambers — that kind of very PNW/adventure style. But I think I’ve started to focus more on that kind of end-of-summer, youthful, fleeting [feel]. I still really respect those photographers.
I mean, there are lots [of influences], and it changes as time goes on. There’s one photographer from [North Vancouver], actually, who’s really cool. Judianne Thomson. Her work is just incredible — it’s film. I’ve definitely taken inspiration [from her].
RW: I had a friend — she's actually the step-sister of a good friend of mine — and she was into photography. She ended up getting a wedding gig. She didn’t do weddings — she didn’t even do paid photography — but a manager from her work or something, I can’t really remember, was getting married and asked, ‘Do you want to do my wedding photography?’ So she asked me to be a second shooter.
And it was funny, because the wedding we shot, the [couple] were actually wedding photographers. So I then started working with them. They reached out a few months later and said, ‘Would you want to second shoot for us?’ That’s kind of what got me in the door.
RW: I think it’s pretty hard to just start doing weddings. Someone has to trust you. If you don’t have a family friend or someone close to you that’s going to trust you [with their wedding photos], it can be kind of hard. So for me, it was great just to build a portfolio that I could use, as well as just… I’d never even been to many weddings as a guest at that point in my life. So just to get oriented with how a wedding flows and works, [it was helpful]. I would be nervous if I’d just [gone in] with no past experience.
RW: Oh, totally. Yeah. You know, it was good to do it with a friend. You laugh about stuff. Things always go wrong in a wedding. Like, minor things.
I remember I did this one wedding — this was pretty early on in my wedding [days], not second shooting — it was after the ceremony, and we were doing formal photos with the bride and groom, and the wedding party. I took a bunch of photos and [realized] I needed to change the battery, so I turned the camera off and pulled the battery out, but what I didn't realize was that [my camera] was still writing to the memory card.
I remember this error warning coming up on the screen. I can’t remember exactly what it said, but it said something like, ‘Didn’t write properly. Do you want to reattempt writing?’ I felt my heart just sink, like, ‘How many photos did I lose?’ And you know, people are around, so I’m trying to [act nonchalant]. I ended up selecting ‘Yes,’ and it was fine. It wrote the [photos] to the card, and it was no problem. But that was a lesson: don’t do anything until the memory card is done writing.
RW: Definitely more natural light. I’m [more] the film-inspired natural light look. I do bring a flash to weddings, for example. Some receptions are inside and it’s dark. You have to use a flash a lot of the time in that [environment]. I don’t bring a huge apparatus. Some commercial shoots, maybe that’ll be necessary — if it’s in a studio. But I will always prefer the natural light.
RW: Basically, just position the sun in a way that you want. Over the shoulder works really well sometimes. I know some people hate a backlit sun, but I think it can work pretty well. I’m not a traditionalist; I’ll play around, do whatever.
I think one way to work with a really harsh sun is to do that almost high fashion magazine [look]. And I mean kind of obscure high fashion — almost like you might see [with] vintage skateboarding. That kind of streetwear-y style of photography will often have almost washed-out, muted, high sun, high contrast. That kind of thing can work really well. But just play around, move it around. Do what you can, and sometimes it’s just going to look really bright. That’s okay.
That’s kind of my thing: I’m not here to fake it. If you’re shooting in the harshest light, that’s when you were shooting. It’s how it is. You’ve got to do the best you can with it, but not try to fake it — not try to make it look like it’s something it’s not. And I take that approach with working in low light too. I want people to [see a photo and remember], 'We were dancing in low light.' I don't want it to look like [they] were dancing when it was super bright.
And you know, in the harsh sun, you can just go in the shade too.
RW: I use Lightroom. I have my own presets — one that I’ve developed over the years, and that’s what I apply on import and then work from there. When it comes to Photoshop, I don’t really [do much]. I’ll do light edits. In Lightroom, I’ll do colour correction and exposure correction — that kind of thing. And I’ll do light stuff: light spot removal, maybe whiten teeth a little bit. But I’m not going to go in and airbrush skin. If your son had, like, one big giant pimple or something, [I’ll edit that].
RW: No. See, that goes back to [me wanting] things to look how they looked. I want it to have a strong resemblance to how things actually were. I’m not the type of guy who’s going to spend hours and hours in Photoshop completely modifying the image in a big, big way.
RW: Mostly, I just keep it at 100. But sometimes, if the lighting is a little bit lower, I might keep it defaulted to 250, just so the shutter speed can stay fast enough that I don’t get motion blur. That’ll be for my daylight outdoor settings, of course.
As it starts to get darker, blue hour, it has to go up. And [the same for] indoors, for a reception or event. Like, an evening office party at 100 or 250 is probably a little low — way too low if I’m not using a flash. But I try not to take it up too far. My editing style is film-inspired, so there is some grain already.
RW: This is kind of cliche, and I totally understand that, but I used to be really worried about ‘likes.’ I think everyone kind of is. I mean, obviously, it’s built into the platform. That’s what they want. But I used to really think about a photo, like, ‘is this going to get likes?’
On Instagram especially, there’s so many trends that [come and go]. Even spots. One [photographer] posts a picture of a certain spot, and then all of a sudden, everyone’s taking a picture of that same spot. Or there’s the classic “follow me” pose with the hand… stuff like that, it becomes so trendy. At one point in time, I was really [caught up in that]. But in the last little bit, I’ve [decided] it’s not really about that [for me].
I want to put what I like on social media. I’m still aware what time of day I should post to get more likes or views, but for the most part, [my approach is that] I want to put together a piece of work that I really like, and hopefully a potential client would see that and get [a better sense of] my art, my work. That’s more important to me than getting more likes.
RW: [Arcas Media] is me, my buddy Sam [Van Hell], and my buddy Jack [Van Hell]. They’re actually cousins. I met Sam way back in elementary school. We were friends then, and then in middle school, we reconnected. We were in the same class, and [Jack] was also in that class. We became really close friends. In 2018, we all had a mutual interest in media. Sam is really into video, so that’s primarily what he does. I primarily do photography. Sam and I write together a bit too. And then Jack is quite a talented graphic designer and web designer.
Most of our work has been video-driven, supplemented by some photography work and graphic design. We’ve done a lot of cool projects through that. We’ve worked with Vancouver Island University; we’ve done quite a bit of work for them. We’ve done some work for the Green Point Project — it’s a residential home project in Cowichan Bay. The owner is an architect from Vancouver, and he bought a piece of land out in Cowichan Bay, and he wanted to build what could be, if it meets all the certifications, the most environmentally-friendly residential building in the world. We’ve been documenting that for a few years now. That’s been really cool.
RW: You know, I’ll actually talk about a regret. In the past, when I’ve travelled or even just done a local hike, I often look back at moments where I wish I’d [taken more photos]. Like, ‘why did I leave my camera in my backpack at that moment?’ Or it was raining, but I should have taken the photo. So I think a lesson I try to keep in mind as I move forward is you’re not going to regret taking the camera out. Maybe you get robbed or ruin your camera — so do some risk assessment, of course — but just shoot more.
RW: When I’m just shooting for fun, I have the [Sony] a7R III with a 24-70mm F2.8 lens on it. [I’ll bring] an extra battery, some extra memory cards, and that’s pretty much it. That’s like the workhorse: I can do almost anything with that.
When I’m going to a wedding or another type of event, I’ll bring the backup camera, more batteries, a flash unit, batteries for that, a tripod, [and] I’ll usually bring a 85mm lens. And then I have some Nikon lenses as well — some longer telephotos. But honestly, I don’t really use them. From a journalistic perspective, photojournalism of the past was about using primes and getting up close, so I’ve taken some of that mentality with me.
RW: [Laughs] I had an iPhone 6 for a really long time, and I only just bought a new phone. I wasn’t really using my phone too much. But whatever, man. The best camera is the one you have. You can make cool stuff on [anything].
RW: Coronavirus definitely had an impact. It’s a pretty big impact. In March especially, I had a lot of weddings either get pushed further back into the fall or downsize. I went from booking a full-day package with 100 guests to a ceremony package with 20 guests at most. Or some weddings get pushed to next year.
March was definitely rough. I was like, ‘oh my god, what is going to happen?’ But work has started to pick back up again. We got a bunch of shoots rescheduled for next year, so that’s okay. As for my actual approach on a shoot, I’m trying to socially distance whenever possible, use hand sanitizer, masks…
I know a lot of people are doing 'doortraits.' I’ve done a couple of those, but not too many. I would say one thing I’ve been able to do is [on the video side]. A lot of the corporate and brand work [through Arcas Media] now is brands [approaching us and saying], 'We need to show how we’re adapting to COVID-19. Can you guys do something?' At the same time, a lot of companies now don’t have the budget to do a lot of stuff like this. It’s been rough for everyone.
RW: I mean, it’s kind of cliche, but the West Coast is just incredible. The Olympic Mountains as seen from anywhere around Victoria, even Dallas Road, are crazy beautiful. Out towards Jordan River, when you’re on the beach and the sun’s setting, the Olympic Mountains are so beautiful.
I’ve done the Juan de Fuca trail — this was quite a few years ago now — and you'll be hiking along and see a humpback whale or grey whale a hundred metres or less off the shore, just swimming. Moments like that are just incredible.
RW: That’s a really good question. There have been a few. I went to Hawaii with my girlfriend and her parents. We were on Kauai. One evening, we were driving down through the Waimea Canyon, and the sun was just dipping down and [creating] these beautiful colours. I looked behind us as we were driving down, and the road was just so windy through the lush [countryside]. I remember [saying], 'We have to stop the car.'
Another one, I was on a road trip. We were on [U.S. Route] 395 through the Sierra Nevadas in California. It’s kind of an iconic spot. There’s this abandoned shack on the side of the highway — this old abandoned house. You’ve got this sagebrush in [the foreground], and then it goes into these beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains behind. Same [kind of story]. Just driving along, getting past golden hour into the blue, and I remember seeing that and just thinking, ‘I can’t not stop for that.’ I remember pulling over and running down the highway, back towards this building, and looking around like, ‘this is insane.’ You just forget sometimes how crazy beautiful it is.