Thibault Roland on how he creates his images

31 December 2015

Thibault Roland has a unique vision in his black and white long-exposure images. He uses shapes and light to step away from reality, even using a modern and 30+ year old lenses, and tilt shift techniques, in order to precisely capture the mystery and passing time. We wanted to learn more about the process of this French-born fine art photographer, who was originally trained in Physics, and his process. 

1. You’ve linked your career in photography to your training in physics - Explain that to us.

Along the 15 or so years that I've studied and worked in physics and biology, I have learned a lot about optics and used many different kinds of microscopy techniques. At school, I was also fascinated by the theory of relativity which is a domain of physics that predicts that time and distance are relative depending on the observer. This means that depending on the location and conditions of observations, you would "see" something different or experience time faster or slower.

At the time though, I was not very serious about photography, and my only goal was to document my travels. That was until I started experimenting with techniques and reading more about it. One day, I came across images that I had never seen before. Images that were so alien and wonderful that I needed to learn all I could about the technique and try it myself.

This technique was long exposure. That day, I realized that a scene can be entirely transformed and a photograph made "relative" by simply changing the conditions used during the "observation" by the camera. In my mind, this is were photography becomes "fine art", and this continuity between my scientific background and my photography work is undeniable, even though it took me a long time to realize it.

2. When you realized photography was it for you, had you had formal training?  

I realized photography was more than just a hobby about four years ago. I've never had any formal training, but rather learned the craft by successive steps of trial and error, and by studying and researching the work of some of the masters of photography from the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as some contemporary photographers. It was a slow and hard process, one that's actually never really finished, but a very exciting journey nonetheless!

3. Compare your early photographs to what we see today. How has your style changed or matured?

A few years ago, both my style and subjects of predilection were quite different.

For one, most of my work, if not all, was in color. I now convert all of my imagery to black and white, and I do this for several reasons. One of these reasons is that I feel a particular affinity with the techniques from "back in the day" (I still shoot some film, including large format), but mostly because I want to create images that are unique and utterly different from the world we live in. Converting to black and white is a way for me to bend these images to my vision, to what I've constructed in my mind even before pressing the shutter.

I also tended to shoot all types of subject matter, ranging from insects to waterfalls and streams. Along the way, I decided to stop dispersing myself and rather focus on a few subjects: seascapes, landscapes and architectural work.

Now, I see my work in a scientific way, in the sense that I construct precise compositions, use very strong leading lines, and edit my images in a very demanding way. Where I once spent 10 minutes editing, I now spend days or weeks because I want them to be up to the highest standards; as well as the ability to be printed flawlessly 60 by 60 inches (1.5 by 1.5 meters) if need be. In addition, I also give shape to the light and contrasts within the image itself in order to construct a path for the eye of the viewer and help guide them to the main subject. In a way, the images I create now tell a story that was entirely absent in my early imagery.

Everything about my current work is now thought out before even capturing the photographs. Each one of my images are very precisely pondered and constructed so they reflect a story, message or feeling that I want to share.

4. What inspires you to take the photographs you produce?

I tend to take my inspiration in many different things.

Sometimes, I would just have a very strong feeling in the field and want to share it with everyone. Some other times, what I see would remind me of a photograph/painting I saw, a book I read, or a movie I watched. Some other times, I would just see something and know it will make for an interesting concept or a highly graphical image. I have also found my inspiration in mythology (mostly Egyptian), which also fascinated me when I was a kid.

5. Walk us through your process for capturing your images and tell us a bit about the equipment required.  It doesn’t look simple...

Most of the time the first step in my mind to a good photograph is to scout for interesting locations online. I call it "Google scouting", and create maps of all interesting locations that I found in a specific area, and when I'm there I try and go to each spot and see it for myself.

Of course, I sometimes end up not shooting at all locations, and I often also just walk around spots without scouting them online first, just so I get a feel of the place for myself and look at it with a fresh eye.

Once I find an interesting subject, I walk around trying to find the best angles, usually those that involve strong leading lines and unique perspectives that will spike my imagination and creative mind.

Then comes the really fun part: constructing the image in my mind, getting the camera out and choosing the right lens so that the magic happens and I get the results I want. I shoot almost exclusively prime lenses, and only use a mirror less system, because it lets me use the best glass from each manufacturer, including 30 years old medium format lenses, and turn them into tilt/shift lenses. I really love using these because they let me be even more creative and give me a much higher technical flexibility: it will either allow me to keep the perspectives perfect, increase my field of view, or introduce blur into my image, which is a way for me to step further away from reality and focus the attention of the viewer on particular areas in my image.

The process is very demanding, complicated and time consuming, but I think that my scientific background helps in that way too, and of course, it's really all worth it in the end!

6. And your editing process?  We hear it takes you weeks to process one photo!

In my latest work, I use this tilt/shift technique so that each one of my final images is actually composed of several long exposure shots stitched together and edited seamlessly in post-production. Each single shot that I take in the field is about 5 minutes in terms of exposure time, which means that each final piece represents at least 20 minutes of exposure time to realize, and up to a total of an hour to set-up, compose the frame, check focus, apply filters and finally capture all images.

In my workflow, you have to keep in mind that taking the shots is only the first step to my creative process. As I mentioned before, I need to perfectly stitch the images together prior to editing them in color. I then work with them like a painter works on a canvas: I build "presence" and "volumes" in the landscapes or buildings, and most importantly I use light and contrast to construct a path for the eye and evoke feelings like tension or peacefulness.

After the images are finalized in color, the black and white conversion process can start. Without going into the details, it is also where the real editing difficulties come into play. It is very demanding, but looking at and correcting every little detail and possible problem (such as hot pixels or fringing) makes all the difference. I also approach these steps in a highly scientific manner, and they allow me to be confident that my images will look as good printed on an 8x8 inches (20x20 cm) canvas or a 60x60 inches (150x150 cm) one.

This dedication and precise editing work takes time, usually 30-50 hours, sometimes longer. Most of my images take therefore months to realize, between scouting, shooting and final editing.

8. What do you feel is the most challenging thing about your photography?

Time. Finding the time to get on location to shoot more material can sometimes be tough, but the main challenge is definitely to find enough time to edit new material. I have a few other things going on such as conferences and workshops; and organizing them, plus keeping an active social media presence can be tricky. I think I will need to recruit some help soon.

10. Is there anything that you are still learning or would like to learn how to do better?

In my mind, being a photographer means learning something new every day: it can be related to gear or about editing, meeting new people and cultures, exploring amazing locations, or simply discovering the work of another photographer online, in a book or a gallery. Fine art photography is a life long journey, and the day you stop learning, discovering or experimenting is they day you'll stop growing as an artist.

Recently, I have been thinking about learning some techniques that even pre-date film: tintypes, ambrotypes, etc. They are very "messy" but so much fun, and lead to amazing images. They require chemicals that tend to leak and stain everywhere, and you can use really cool old lenses and cameras, some that can be more than 100 years old.

11. What’s next?

Next are a few different projects:

I'm going back to France for a few weeks around the end of the December and will do some shooting in Paris. I hope to shoot in Versailles and the Châteaux of the Loire Valley as well. I'm also going to show work in galleries in France and the US, and I'm in discussions for possible representation too. Last but not least, I'm also organizing a few workshops for later in the year in Maine, Montreal (Canada), and possibly France and Iceland.

These are very exciting times!