PetaPixel

Interview with Nick Campbell of greyscalegorilla

Nick Campbell is the photoblogger behind greyscalegorilla.


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PetaPixel: Could you tell me a little about yourself and your background in photography?

Nick Campbell: I’m Nick Campbell, and am currently a designer/animator at Digital Kitchen, which is a motion graphics house in Chicago. We do a lot of TV commercials, animation for TV commercials, TV show openers, and fun stuff like that. I graduated from the Institute of Art in Chicago in ’05 as a designer. I grew up in a suburb of Detroit, moved to Chicago to go to school for motion design, and kind of fell upon photography during that time.

PP: When did you first become interested in visual arts?

NC: I wasn’t a big drawer or anything. I couldn’t draw. In fact, hated photos as a kid. It was always family photos. It was always very posed, and I had just no interest in it. I remember my dad had an SLR on one of those Mikey Mouse straps he always had, and was always taking photos, but I just never caught the bug. I had a Fischer Price camera for about two months, and played around with it, but just never liked it. I think it was the film aspect… I was hyperactive, and the film didn’t really play into that. You had to get it developed and get stuff back.

But, as far as being interested in visual arts, I was always interested in stop motion, playing with the video camera, and making music videos in the basement. That type of stuff was always really interesting to me. There were also computer programs that allowed me to animate and make stuff move around. I was always interested in the movement of things, and playing around with that. I think as a designer or a photographer, I was really late in being interested in that stuff. It was only through wanting to know more about motion, special effects, and that kind of stuff, that I kind of fell into the photography side of it and the design side of it.

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PP: Why did you pick the name greyscalegorilla?

NC: Well, it’s an interesting story. The name came about way before the website was around. I think it was maybe ’02 or ’03. There were three of us who lived in Las Vegas for a year. Chad was a roommate, and Chris was a roommate. Chris, a graphic designer, came to us with the name of his brand new website and asked us our opinion on it. The name was PixelPig.com. Might have been PixelPig.net or something… We all kind of didn’t like the name, and were making fun of each other anyway for a living, so we decided to sit and make up better website names than “PixelPig”. He basically based it on wanting an animal and wanting something to do with graphics. We tossed around a bunch of ideas. “RGBWhale”, etc… “grayscalegorilla” came out of it. It was my buddy Chad who said “grayscalegorilla”, and I was like, “I love that name!”. I did a search online, found it was open, and said “you can’t have it, I own it.” It was the second domain I bought, ever. The first was creamyorange, the second was grayscalegorilla. It came off of just a joke, just like that, and sat around for two years until I wanted to have my photoblog. I figured it’d be a good enough reason to use that name.

PP: In what ways has your photoblog changed your life?

NC: I think becoming interested in photos and photography, and having a photoblog, has kind of acted as a diary. It’s really nice to be able to look back on when I was doing a post a day, and really see what I was doing that day. I can really remember a lot of those days, what I was doing that day, and where I was walking. Being new to the city (I moved to Chicago in ’03, and started taking photos right after), it got me out into the city and exploring new parts of Chicago. Up to that point I was kind of going directly from my apartment, to school, to the bar, to my apartment, to school, to the coffee shop, to the bar, and back. I didn’t really get out and about. The photoblog (and forcing myself to post once a day) really got me out shooting different places, trying to capture things I didn’t shoot the day before. I’d say those two things. getting out, seeing the city, and learning where everything was was a huge and fun part for me. The other part that kind of changed my life was that now I have this diary I can go back on. It’s almost four or five years old now, and I can go back through and see stuff I was doing in ’05 or ’04 and remember that day through my photos. It’s been really great for that.

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PP: What was your first camera?

NC: Other than the Fischer Price when I was a kid, when I moved to Chicago I bought the Canon SD 100. It was their first little cigarette pack-sized ELPH camera. I think it was two megapixels, and had a CompactFlash card in it with 60 megs on it. Could barely take any photos with it, but I got a good deal on it on eBay. I wanted a pocket camera that I could take around to parties and my friends’ house to shoot stuff and put it up online. I think it was $150 or so, which was pretty good for how small it was in ’03 or ’04. I started shooting friends, out and about, and all kinds of other stuff.

My first camera was that little SD 100 ELPH, and my first SLR camera was the D70. To me it was the first affordable digital SLR. I think I paid $1,500 for it, which in college was a whole bunch of money. I was really passionate about getting a photoblog up, shooting every day, and was shooting a ton of stuff with the little SD camera, so I went and got the D70 with the kit lens. I had that thing until late last year. It was a great camera, and I’d still recommend it. If you find a D70, grab it. They’re pretty similar to the D60 and D50. Great camera. Really good.

PP: What equipment do you use?

NC: I currently have a D700 Nikon, which is Nikon’s first affordable full-frame camera. I got the D700 late last year, and ever since I started with Nikon, I’ve been slowly building up some lenses. I have the 24-70 2.8 (which is kind of the standard walk-around lens), and the 50 1.4 and the 50 1.8 (which are really good lenses for walking around and low-light, indoor stuff). One of my favorite portrait lenses is an 85 1.4. That’s really, really great for portraits. My friends got married last weekend, and I shot some photos with that. It’s amazing what it does. What the 1.4 aperture does is, not only allow a ton of light in under low-light, but also blows out the background and gives you a really shallow depth of field, isolating what you’re focusing on from the background and from the foreground.

Other stuff that I have is a Ray ring flash, which is a flash attachment that goes around your lens and gives you a ring-flash look. I have a couple hot-shoe strobes/speedlights, miscellaneous bags, other small lenses. I have a 20mm lens. I actually have a video where I went through all my gear. In it you can see most everything I use.

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PP: Why Nikon instead of Canon?

NC: It was a really close decision when I bought my first SLR. The two affordable cameras were the first Canon Digital Rebel that was getting close to a thousand bucks and the D70. I was looking at that one, but everyone recommended that I spend the extra money and get the D70. At the time it had some extra features: faster shutter release, etc… It was just that next step up. I played around with the Canon and played around with the Nikon. I ended up with the Nikon mainly because I like the way Nikon’s interface is, and the way they’re laid out. Canon just didn’t seem right to me, even though the ELPH I had was a Canon. I pretty much assumed I was going to get a Canon until I tried out the D70. It felt right, weighed a little more, felt a little better in my hands, and wasn’t as plasticy as the Rebel at the time. I think it was kind of by chance that I fell into Nikon. I think once you have a brand and start buying lenses, you kind of just continue down that road.

Canon has some pretty cool stuff out with the video modes. I would love to have HD video on my camera. That would be awesome, but I stick with Nikon because when I’m taking photos, I know where everything is, I have the lenses for it, I have the knowledge for it, and I like the way they work.

PP: If you had to pick only one body and one lens, what combination would you choose and why?

NC: It’s kind of a tossup. I might grab the 50mm 1.4 and my D700, just because it’s super lightweight and I can walk around and shoot almost anything with it. But I would be tempted to instead pick the 24-70 lens to walk around with. If I had to live with one more lens for the rest of my life, I would have to cheat and get a zoom lens, the 24-70, just so I could shoot portrait stuff, zoom out and shoot landscape, and get everything. But I really do like putting the 50 on and walking around.

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PP: Can you describe your workflow?

NC: If I’m shooting for fun, I’ll try to limit myself and just grab one, maybe two, lens(es), my charged up camera (card empty), walk outside and pick a new, fun place to go. I’ll slow down, walk around, and shoot stuff. I tend to shoot a lot of buildings, cars, junk on the street, trains, etc… I like shooting train tracks and the industrial area I live near. That’s kind of my photo process.

Once I see a subject, I’ll try different angles. I’ll get it back lit, front lit, close on it, details, and try to shoot some different styles. Sometimes it’s kind of nice to have an excuse to climb around, sneak over across the railroad tracks, up onto a bridge, and figure out how to get to a certain place to get a shot of a particular thing. That’s my walking around process.

Of course, I shoot some friends’ weddings, and some event photography as well. That’s kind of a different situation, a little more focused on people. I have more fun shooting whatever and just walking around.

As far as shooting, if I take a shot, look at the camera, and see that the photo on the back is a little dark or a little bright, I’ll use my exposure adjustment to open up or close the lens just a bit. I usually shoot in aperture mode, where I select the aperture I want to use, and the camera will take care of the shutter speed itself. Actually, the new D700 Nikon has a really great feature where it will lock the aperture (the size of the opening in the lens) and the shutter speed (how fast the photo is taken), and will just move the ISO (the sensitivity of the camera). I can shoot indoors and outdoors, and just walk around and shoot stuff without having to worry too much about adjusting a bunch. I usually shoot wide open for everything… I like the narrow depth of field.

I’ll shoot a hundred or so photos at a location, come home, and stick the card in. Lately I’ve been using Aperture. Sometimes I just go directly to Bridge. It goes into an organization area and I’ll go through the photos, picking which ones I like. I’ll usually go through first and mark them with a 3, saying “these are okay”, “these pass the test of being not blurry”, or “I like the layout of these”. Then I’ll go through the 3 starred ones, and mark the 4s. The 4s are the ones that really stand out. Usually I’ll have four of the same subject that I like that are all marked 3. I’ll say “this is my favorite one”, mark it 4, and move forward.

Usually I’ll go from there to Photoshop where I start to color correct, crop, fix things, brighten things, darken things, change the color around, try black and white versions, and just play around with it until it looks cool to my eye. Then I’ll save a full size version, shrink it down for the web version, sharpen it one last time for web, save it, and post it to my blog using PixelPost. I also have a video of my process.

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PP: What is one thing you’ve learned that has had the biggest positive impact on your photography?

NC: I’d probably say embracing limitations. It’s my new thing that has really helped me a lot. I got into a funk walking around and shooting because I’d just ended up with the same shots over and over again. I’d frame up a building the same way, stand in the corner and get a wide angle shot of it. I had new locations and went to new places, but I’d shoot them in the same way.

What I started doing was imposing self-limitations that would force me to think a different way when I shot. I remember one day I went out and shot nothing but shadows of things and not the actual thing itself. Another day I went out and said I would take ten frames. I was kind of liking how using film would limit yourself on how many photos you could take. With digital you can fill up a card and have 400, 500 photos. With film you have 36 or, with the medium format I was using, 10 or 12 shots. Limiting yourself in a certain aspect really pulls the creativity out. That helped me out a lot in my photography.

PP: What would you most like the opportunity to photograph?

NC: I used to live near Detroit, and would get jealous of everyone sneaking into the odd places of Detroit, shooting the abandoned warehouses, train tunnels, and all that stuff. That seems fun to me. A little scary, a little fun. I like the urban decay, industrial aspect, of it. I guess that’d be fun. I’d probably pick that.

I also just like shooting when I’m on vacation in new places. I can’t think of where I’d love to go right now, but yeah. I’ll just say Detroit, that’s a good answer.

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PP: What is the question you’re asked most regarding photography?

NC: It would be “what camera do you use?” and “what camera do you recommend?”, which is tough. I’m kind of sick of answering that question in a way. I think a lot of people think the camera makes the photo, and think, “whoah, your stuff looks really good. You must have a really good camera!”, or “what camera do you use? I want to buy the same camera.” I always point out that more than 80% of my website was shot with a D70, which is 5-6 year old technology. In fact, the only print I have for sale was taken in JPG mode, on my first camera, in the first couple months that I had it, and on the wrong white balance setting.

So it’s a question I’m sick of answering, just because I’d rather talk about the other parts of it. Even other technical parts of it are more important than what camera you use. Learning what aperture is, what shutter speed is, how to use flashes, how to model light, and all those things are more fun to talk about than what the latest camera technology is. However, that’s by far the most popular question.

PP: Who are your favorite photographers?

NC: Quarlo. I’m not sure if he’s still updating his site, but he really got me into shooting film, cross processing, shooting objects. He’s really good with shadow too, and has a lot of black shadowing and stuff like that.

There’s also another guy that shoots nothing but large format portraits. Greg Miller. He walks around with an 8×10 camera, and shoots portraits of people he sees. He poses them, puts them in really great positions, sets a scene up, gets this 8×10 camera (a huge chunk of film), sets it up, waits for the sun to be perfect, then takes these really beautiful shots.

Check out Greg Miller and Quarlo.

I’m not traditionally trained in photography or anything. I don’t know my names or my history of photography people. Like I said, it was never a passion of mine until I saw what these people online were doing, and I started thinking, “well, I can do that!”. I think it was chromasia, a really popular photoblog guy. I came across his site in ’03. His site was the one where I said “those look pretty cool. I think I could do that actually. I think I could pull that off”.

So, check those dudes out.

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PP: If you could choose one photographer to be interviewed by PetaPixel, who would it be and why?

NC: Man. I’d love to see an interview with Quarlo. He doesn’t even do interviews, but if you could get him on there, that’d awesome. I’m not sure if he’s still shooting or what he’s doing, but Quarlo man, he’s my guy. He was really helpful too. I had some questions when I got into film, and he took time to answer some questions, so I appreciate that. Seems like a good guy.

PP: Do you have anything else you’d like to share with PetaPixel readers?

NC: For me, photography and this whole thing came about by accident. I tend to obsess over things for three months at a time. Photography became that thing for me. I obsessed over it, and forced myself to post a photo a day. I did that for almost three years. That was the best way to learn everything. I didn’t study photography, and the only thing I knew about composition was what I learned in film school. I figured, “what better way to learn about composition than to grab a camera and force myself to shoot every day?”. As far as being a designer, being an animator, and being in the film industry, it’s the best thing I did for my sense of composition, color, and framing. It’s really a great way to learn a lot.

Now, with how cheap everything is, you can get a Nikon D50 with a kit lens for 600 bucks at Costco or something. It’s basically a D70, the same camera I shot a ton of photos with. It’s exciting. If you’re interested in photography, I would totally grab an SLR and start shooting. I just can’t imaging learning with film. It’s one of the reasons I never got into it. With digital you can learn and screw up a billion times, look at the back of the camera, and can at least look at it and say, “well, that doesn’t look good”. You can try different things and learn through making a million mistakes. I think that’s the best way to do it.