Whether he's climbing the Alps or navigating through the thick jungles of South America, Huw James's goal isn't only to capture breathtaking images. His impressive resume of education, experience and training, along with his passion filmmaking and photography culminate into one objective: To communicate science to the public.
Armed with his impressive array (and understanding) of equipment, along with his company Anturus, he sets out on the greatest adventure. To bring a clear and enjoyable understanding of old and new science to classrooms and people across the UK.
Where are you from?
Originally from a little place in South Wales called Blackwood. It’s just a small town like any small town. It has that mentally that you get stuck in that place, you grew up in the place, you work in that place, you marry in that place, and you don’t venture out. So I was quite keen to venture out and see the world. I went to a university in South Wales, and after that tried to get out and explore.
What work do you do?
So my degree is in Astronomy and Space science, and straight after that I went to work for Techniquest which is a science centre in Cardiff. They’re designed to communicate science to the public. Sometimes it's science we’ve known about for a long time, but sometimes its new stuff like vaccinations and climate changes. So my background and big passion is communicating science to the public. Quickly then I went on to other communication companies and ended up freelancing and building a business myself based around communicating science and my loves: extreme sports and adventure. So with my business now it covers many aspects, I do a lot of public speaking and science shows. So the hour long science shows have experiments and demos in there as well, so the audience get to interact and engage with the presenter. It’s basically like a performance. I also studied different types of performance.
Is film and photo useful to science? Is it a type of science?
I also lecture in ‘Science Communications’ at the local university, as a way of paying that forward really, teaching the next generation of scientists. One of my projects called Anturus (which is a welsh word meaning adventurous) we’re trying to use photo and film as a medium to communicate science. There’s this discussion – 'Is film and photo useful to science? Is it a type of science?' If you know the glacier is receding by 10 metres per year, that’s hard data. If you take images of that and do a time-lapse, is that data? There’s a debate there to be had. But personally I feel that is good data, but also a way of communicating it to the public.
When did start to seriously get into photography?
People sometimes ask me 'Have I always enjoyed science?'. The answer is no. I always enjoyed sport, but when I think back to when I was 11, I ask my parents for my first telescope and kind of always been into it since then. I recently found an image of me with a camera when I was 8 years old and remember using it quite a lot. It wasn’t until the age of digital photography that I really got into it, and it think it was mainly for the convenience of it. I am very much a digital photographer. I love the old style and look of film, but it’s really not convenient for me.
Photo by Neil Mansfield
What are you using to post-process your images?
I do both film and photo, so I tried my best to make my setup as fast as possible, and normally process on my computer instead of my laptop. I’ve got two different monitors for two different parts of the workflow. Acer 3.5GHz processor, dedicated graphics card, 1tb SSD, 16GB ram – trying to make it as quick as possible. Then I’ve got the creative cloud suite. Adobe CC is one of the best pieces of kit you can get. For photos, I go straight into Lightroom – to batch process stuff. And then I’ll use different presets. I’m always looking for that kind of thing. Anything to make my job faster as an editor. I know people who will spend hours on photographs, but if I can’t get it done I 2-5 minutes then I think I’m spending way too long on it. So from Lightroom they’ll go straight to jpegs. And then either in Photoshop if they need more touching up - only for spot healing or to mask something out, but I try my best to get as much done in the camera as possible. If I’m doing star trails I use a great application StarStaX, which is a free bit of software and its one where you can just compile star trails - and it is the best free thing you’ll ever download.
I also use things like After Effects for building the time-lapse for video, which comes straight through the workflow form Lightroom and Photoshop. So I’ll either go down that route, or I’ll process them all out into LRTimelapse – which is a fantastic bit a kit to have. Great for de-flicker and holy grail. And then for video Premiere Pro all the way through. The new CC is just so powerful.
Tell us about some of the locations you’ve shot in?
(Travelling) It is a perk, but it’s also a hindrance sometimes. I know humble bragging is a thing where people are like “Oh I’m so tired cos I’m never at home”, and that’s pretty cool actually, but it’s the reason I took the lecturing job one day a week so I can be at home. So I’m very much based still in Wales, but all of the locations I go to means that I have to do a bit of travelling. I work for a cruise ship company – which take me to a few locations. Also for my own company Anturus, we’ll go to scientifically interesting locations and shoot in there. So we’ve been Mt Etna (Italy), and filmed on a volcano. We paddle boarded the river Severn from as close to the source as possible down to the sea, and last year I was in the French Alps. And every single place you go to offers different challenges and benefits. From the type of light that there is, to the water hazards. For example on Mt Etna, some of our equipment got lost, and then the bike rack get stolen off my car. In challenging environments you’ve got to be ready, which is where good insurance comes in. I’ve always been an advocate for not being too precious about things. I’m just chucking on lenses to get the picture faster, however it does mean that they get dropped or break faster but that's why I’ve got insurance.
So in Spain at 2500 metres, we were at the biggest astronomical observatory in mainland Europe. We were using the 1.2 metre telescope. For the first 5 days it was wall to wall cloud and -8°C with blizzards, and for the last 2 days it cleared up and we get some great photography done.
Every different location offers different challenges
We'll be in the amazon in the summer as well which is 5 weeks of film and photo. The biggest thing in those locations are ‘where are you going to charge your batteries’ and ‘where you going to store your stuff’. Every different location offers different challenges, the only way to overcome them is the biggest thing, and trying to not to worry about them.
A lot of the time you will fail before the camera does.
What was the most challenging environment to shoot in and why?
I shot some stuff in Scotland a few years ago, and Scotland is one fo those places where you go there expecting bad weather. It was 2012/13 season and it was -25C with 75 mph winds. Its tough to shoot in those locations. Batteries die a lot quicker in those enviroments, stuff gets on the lens, snow builts up. Your exposure of the weather to your skin. A lot of the time you will fail before the camera does. If you're trying to take pictures and you can’t feel your fingers, it tough to do, so having the right clothing and good equipment is always key. I've been asked to shoot with all kinds of cameras, even phones cameras. I can tell you that phone cameras and consumer technology are always the first ones to fail.
Have you got a favourite photo that you’ve taken?
2 years ago in the Monta Rosa region of the Alps, I took my DSLR and I thought I’d get a few cutaways and photos, and sometimes the ones that you don’t plan are the best. It was our last day. We headed out the huts where’d we’d been snowed in for a day or 2. We had to head back down, but before we did we wanted to head off another 4000 metre peak. So all of us headed up this huge 45 degree slope to the summit. And then, half way up, we hear this man shouting, we wondered what it was and we shouted back. It turned out it was this welsh man. We talked to him and found out his name was Peter, who was also Welsh! As he walked off into the distance my mate said “Ah look at that”, and these clouds started to roll in. So I took my camera and took a quick snapshot, and it was just a picture of this guy who was out by himself – he’d left his wife and kids in the Valley to do a few days by himself, and it’s just a picture of this guy heading up the 4000 metre peak.
The reason it resonates was because on the way back down one of my friends said “Ah it’s not far from the cable car, let’s try and walk down a bit”. It was 2pm in the afternoon, and it turns out it was a hellish trip, and we missed the next cable car. What should’ve been an 8hr-10hr trip turned into a 16hr trip! The reasons it’s called "A Stone's Throw" was because my friend had said “lets walk down to the next cable car station, it’s only a stone’s throw away” and it turned out to be a 16 hr epic in the Alps.
"A Stone's Throw" - by Huw James