Thomas Sheppard

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Just when you feel you’ve explored a topic or genre in depth, along comes someone who shows you that you’ve barely scratched the surface … 

Tom Sheppard is one of these “someones” in the field of photography! His work with monochrome or muted colour palettes and old lenses creates the most remarkable images. Without colour and working with the imperfections found in many older lenses, Tom is able to highlight patterns, textures and lines and view subjects from an entirely different perspective …

Hi Tom. What’s your history in the local area?

Hi Jo. My family and I moved to Port Macquarie in 1987. As a teacher, I have had the privilege of getting to know many wonderful people of the Greater Port Macquarie area. It is a thrill to meet parents who were infants in my schools in those days, who have children of their own now.  

Where did your journey “behind the lens” begin?

I have always loved making images, and as a child I sketched for pleasure. Photography was expensive, and it was not until I was working that I could afford a camera – albeit a simple one. 

When I met Barbara, the love of my life, she was using a Kodak Retinette, and her images simply blew me away. My first serious camera was a Canon FTb – a 35mm SLR – quickly followed by a simple darkroom. The world of photography opened up for me and has continued to captivate me ever since.

Considering you’ve embraced both film and digital photography, what do you see as being the advantages, and disadvantages, of the two mediums?

Digital imagery is something that most people take for granted today. It is cheap, quick, easy, and of high quality. The flexibility of digital sensors and the sophistication of the software that runs them virtually guarantees an image in almost any situation. The ability to easily capture images with a high dynamic lighting range or under dimly lit conditions amazes me. Using film for such tasks isn’t impossible, but it is much more demanding.

On the other hand, digital images are captured by the millions every day – most are glanced at and then either forgotten or discarded. Easy come, easy go, I guess. Few have any permanence.

Film is not cheap, not easy, and not instant in most cases. There is always a deliberate choice about whether or not the scene is worthy of a film image. Often, I will pass on an image if I think that it does not contribute something fresh, or if I cannot render it in a different way from others like it.

Film forces me to think a lot more about the subject and my treatment of it – what the light is doing and how I compose the image in my mind. This often involves changing my point of view.

Film has a physical presence that zeros, ones and “clouds” of the digital world do not.

What is your particular interest in monochrome work … why does it inspire you?

I started my photographic journey with monochrome, and fell in love with it. Without colour, other things – line, pattern and texture – and the way that light plays across an image assume more importance.  Add to that the way that tones are represented, and the simplified presentation has more impact for me. 

The colour images that I shoot tend to have a more restrained palette as a consequence.

What subjects do you most enjoy photographing (and why)?

My photography is an inherently personal experience, and the joy of taking the image is every bit as important as the completed picture. I really enjoy photography outdoors, so I am drawn to landscapes and nature.  The opportunity to “zone-out” and experience the moment completely – the smells, the touch of the breeze, the closeness of a humid sea-mist, the total stillness of a canopied forest, and above all – the silence … photography is an experience that nourishes my spirit.

Tell us a little about your work with old lenses … where do you source these items, and what are some examples of the ways they impact your photography?

Lens design has always been driven by a desire for optical perfection. Current intelligent computer aided design is producing lenses of remarkable clarity that record in almost unbelievable detail.

Every lens designer today has the same information available to them, access to the best in optical glass and synthetics … and new lenses are extraordinary feats of engineering. To me, however, they are too perfect. Results from most of them are indistinguishable from their competitors.

Older lenses from the film era were nowhere near as perfect, and were built with best performance  at some apertures and compromises elsewhere. It is these imperfections in such lenses that give them their charm, and enable them to “paint” with a unique signature.

When the swing from film to digital was starting to gain momentum, many people made the switch and discarded their old film equipment. I was known as a user of old lenses, and many of these relics came my way. I have also sought out particular lenses for the way they paint, and use them where their special characteristics can shine. Germany, Russia and Japan all produced lenses with individual and unique signatures.

Of course, as mirrorless digital cameras have started to become popular, people have realised that these older lenses can now be used again with appropriate adapters, and they are once more growing in popularity and are again becoming sought after.

What are some destinations you’ve travelled to that you’ve particularly enjoyed photographing?

Overseas travel has an allure for photographers, and I am not immune. However, it isn’t easy to capture memorable images that haven’t already been done to death by thousands of photographers before you. Vietnam, China, Bali, Turkey and Greece have been highlights for me, with Turkey the standout among them. 

However, my best images have always come from closer to home. The Greater Port Macquarie area has such a wealth of landscapes, that it continues to reward and fascinate. 

Western Queensland and Central Australia are simply stunning, and the coasts of NSW and Victoria wonderful.

Why do you enjoy being a member of photography groups – and how do these groups help you?

Over many years I have belonged to camera clubs in the towns in which we have lived – Young, Tumut and Port Macquarie. In all cases, it was the shared enthusiasm for photography that brought us together. 

What excites me now is the continued growth among members of my Port Macquarie Panthers Photographic Club, as I see them expressing themselves as photographic artists. I have watched them transition from practitioners of the craft, to exhibitors of their art. Further, they have grown in confidence to become teachers themselves, as they take part in evaluation sessions and workshop their ideas and those of others. 

I am thrilled to see some members attaining photographic honours through The Australian Photographic Society, The Royal Photographic Society and The Photographic Society of America. The teacher in me delights in seeing others learn.

What would you like to achieve photographically in the next year or so?

I have always loved film photography, and currently shoot 35 mm and medium format. My aim over the next year or two is to become more proficient at large format photography and its associated darkroom printing. There is nothing like the gestation and birth of an image in a darkroom and the magic of a silver gelatin print.

Where can we see more examples of your work/find out more about you?

I have just completed an exhibition of some of my work at Masterpiece Framers Gallery in Port Macquarie. Of course, I also exhibit within my Port Macquarie Panthers Photographic Club, and post regularly on Facebook under Tom Sheppard.

Our club meets on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at 7pm at Port Panthers.

Thanks Tom.

Interview: Jo Robinson.

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