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We Chat With Christopher Bissell - ePz puts a spotlight on photographer & Pentax Ambassador Christopher Bissell.
The man behind the camera - which now happens to be a Pentax 645D, a Ricoh GXR or GR - is completely self-taught, learning from shooting images and picking up tips along the way. This includes advice on composition he received from friends in New Zealand after reaching them with an old camera he bartered for on Fiji.
“I've been shooting all my life,” says Chris. “But I'm not a tech geek, I just love taking pictures.”
You could say that Chris fell into photography, started shooting and didn't really stop. He shot album art 'way back when' and now celebrity portraiture as well as architectural work and commercial shoots are some of the photography styles he's most well-known for.
“I've always been a people photographer at heart,” says Chris. “I like the intrigue and mystery of portraiture work. Yes, I can google an actor's name and find everything there is to know about them but it isn't until you meet them face-to-face that you really begin to know them.”
As any portrait photographer knows, putting your subject at ease is crucial but is often easier said than done.
“You might be surprised to hear that some actors are actually shy once they're in front of my camera,” explains Chris. “It's important that they feel comfortable so I talk then shoot. I don't tend to fire lots of shots off in a row and it's vital that we are working together. Laughter helps but just remember to build the mood and try not to seize up.”
As well as having a passion for photography in general, Chris sings positively for Pentax, particularly their medium format 645D which he now sees as his go-to 'work horse' camera.
“It was good to get back in the saddle with a medium format camera,” says Chris. “I just love it, I'm a medium format shooter at heart.”
Christopher Bissell's Kit List:
Body 645D Pentax With:
“I was really thrown in at the deep end but the camera isn’t complicated and all the controls on this camera are quick and easy to access,” says Chris. “You can move modes without having to press 'OK' and it really is an intuitive camera to use."
Chris shoots the majority of his work hand held so another important feature of the 645D is its comfortable grip and reasonably light-weight body. When Chris does need a tripod, there are 2 sockets built into the body for both vertical and horizontal mounting.
“It really does win hands-down when compared to other cameras,” says Chris.
Chris has had a healthy respect for Pentax equipment for many years, complimenting the company on its ability to create solid cameras and excellent lenses: “When I was younger, there were two top brands everyone talked about and they were Nikon and Pentax.”
Chris' relationship with Pentax continues today with him officially taking on the role of UK Ambassador for the Pentax 645D back in January. This involves shooting imagery for both Pentax and Ricoh and he also regularly updates his own blog and posts enthusiastically on Twitter.
The 645D with its 40Mp sensor, perfect for creating super-high resolution images for the largest of prints, maybe the camera Chris reaches for when shooting commissions but for quick street shots or other day-to-day images it's the smaller Ricoh cameras that are usually in his hand.
“I always have a camera with me and I make sure it's in my hand so I don't miss anything,” says Chris. “With my Ricoh GR and 28mm prime lens I can shoot from the hip when out on the street and capture architectural work, too.”
Primes are something that have featured in Chris' camera bag since he started in film but his love for primes aren't the only thing he brought with him from his film days: “I shoot digitally the same way I always shot film. I focus manually, although I have played around with autofocus which is quick on Pentax lenses,” explains Chris.
Talk to Chris for just a few minutes and you'll soon realise he still has a lot of fun shooting digitally but he has found that the digital age has slowed shoots down with photographers and clients constantly wanting to check the images on screen to see how the shoot is progressing. Another side effect of the digital age is the obsession with pixel counting and the need to have everything pin-sharp.
“What's killed a lot of lovely art is people viewing images and saying: 'it's not sharp',” says Chris. “Photography should be about mood and feeling but sadly, some now miss that point and don't see that the feel and groove is just as important.”
“I am always experimenting,” continues Chris. “I love bringing movement to my images and I am always playing around with ways I can achieve this.”
A shoot which stands out for its use of movement and motion is one with Russian ballerina Elena
Glurdjidze. The images were shot in the reception rooms of Chris' house, of which he removed every piece of furniture from, to give them the room they needed to work.
Elena was a perfectionist and when they reviewed the first leap on screen she immediately pointed out that her legs weren’t straight and that her arms were in the wrong position.
“We got the shot we wanted in just 17 leaps,” says Chris. “The whole experience was incredible.”
Other memorable moments include photographing John Cleese and his partner Jenifer in a cow shed: “Jenifer was talking and then John starts doing skits from Faulty Towers and Monty Python. We were all laughing and enjoying the shoot and I thought: 'it doesn't get better than this',” says Chris. “Here was a man I watched on TV as a kid and the legend was right in front of me. It was a real 'wow' moment.”
Another interesting day was when Chris did a shoot for Athena which involved models, a rain-filled sky and the small matter of hiring a Spitfire for the afternoon.
Chris hired the Spitfire for four hours and in that time it rained almost constantly but rather than getting annoyed by it or worse still calling the shoot off, Chris allowed the atmosphere to inspire him and the shoot continued.
“In the UK we have weather and it's something we have to deal with,” says Chris. “Yes, it was raining and my camera body even got dented after it fell onto a metal ladder but we just put a brolly over the lens and carried on. The same goes for a shoot where I had a sexy couple posed on the bonnet of a 1954 James Dean Porsche. It was wet but this made the girl's summer dress cling to her and it looked great – it worked.
What I am trying to say is don't let the weather stop you. Use it to your advantage, use it to create mood and say: 'bring it on'.”
To see more of Christopher Bissell's work, please do visit his website: chrisbissell.co.uk
You can also find more information about Christopher Bissell on the Pentax UK website. To read more about Pentax Ricoh GR Brand Ambassadors visit the new Pentax Ricoh GR Brand Ambassador website.