Photographer Zahn Pithers has a long connection to the Coffs Coast and finally made the more permanent move with his family earlier this year. FOCUS talks to him about his family’s love of surfing, the importance of balancing commercial photography work with personal projects, what type of shoots he has been doing in the area and the industry changes he has seen in a career of over 20 years.
What is your connection to the Coffs Coast?
My father moved here about 30 years ago, and we’ve come to visit him for holidays every one of those 30 years. My wife’s parents live here also. We bought some land in the area about 15 years ago, and my family has finally made the move and we are now living in paradise!
Dad was drawn to the relaxed lifestyle and good surf. He was inspired to move here by my uncle and surf filmmaker Alby Falzon, who bought 100 acres of land just south of Coffs in the 1960s. He built a farmhouse on it and it was a base for his friends, including my father, to go surfing from.
Can you tell us more about the connection your family has with surfing?
My mother came 2nd in the Australian surfing championships in the ‘60s. Her sister was a great surfer and movie glamour, who even did films with Elvis Presley. They were known as the “Binning Sisters” and were sponsored by surf and car companies to travel the East Coast teaching people how to do “The Stomp”, which was the latest dance move in the ‘60s.
My father was a founding photographer of Tracks Magazine, and he travelled the coast photographing the best surfers in the country and doing layouts for the magazine. My uncle, Alby Falzon, started Tracks and made the classic cult surf film Morning of the Earth.
My wife and eight year old son surf, and I’m still trying to convince my five year old daughter to take it up, but she’s not convinced yet.
How did having a photographer as a father influence your own career?
I graduated from high school with grades to get me into either business or media at university. I chose media (majoring in photography) because I knew I’d have a great mentor in my father. I thought maybe I’d end up doing surf photography, but events led me towards commercial photography. Dad’s career also took him into commercial and advertising photography, and I spent many hours on the phone asking for advice on how to “make it” as a commercial photographer. Aside from lessons on composition and how to communicate with clients, Dad’s best advice was “stick with it, keep shooting and never give up your dream”. I really owe him a lot for that.
You have been a photographer for over 20 years. How did you get started in the industry, and what changes have you witnessed since then?
After graduating from university, my first job was in a television studio with long hours for very little reward; it just wasn’t my thing. One day a photographer hired the TV studio for a stills shoot, I asked him for a job, and he said, “You start on Monday”.
On day one I was handed a film camera and was asked to shoot catalogues for Woolworths and other major businesses. Soon after, the studio bought the first digital camera to come on to the market. It was $50,000 for that camera. Digital was so new, that many clients didn’t trust it and would ask for film instead. It was a long learning curve, but now it’s hard to believe that film ever existed – everything is digital.
What is your advice for the emerging photographers out there?
There are so many areas of photography, so I won’t try to cover them all, but the best advice I ever got was my father’s. Keep shooting, never give up and believe in yourself. If you have steely determination and a love of your craft, anything is possible.
Photography is a lot more accessible to everyone now. Has this changed the role and value of high quality professional photography?
Good photography is still good photography. The downside of digital is that anyone can be a “photographer”. It has lowered the quality of photography in general, and to me it’s obvious when someone has done a DIY job. A business will spend thousands on building a new website, but cut corners with the images and visual content.
It’s not the camera that takes a great photo; it’s the person behind it with years of experience. Just because photography is a lot more accessible, doesn’t mean a business should do it themselves. The results from a highly trained professional photographer are worth every cent and the value to your business and how the market perceives it can’t be understated. Great photography makes your business look great.
Can you share some of the most interesting shoots you have done on the Coffs Coast?
I only relocated here earlier in the year, but already I’ve had a few interesting shoots. I have photographed a local blueberry farmer for Woolworths, a motorbike rider in the hills behind Bonville for a new trail bike app, I’m looking at shooting some corporate portraits for a few local businesses, and I’ve been shooting drone and landscape images for both business and private clients (landscapes for people’s walls and drone images for real estate).
Next week I’m shooting a local singer/musician for his latest round of press shots … On his back he has a tattoo of Jesus and the Devil arm wrestling. We are going to try and portray this struggle between good and evil in our shots.
What do you like about drone photography?
Drone/UAV photography is fun. It’s great seeing the world from such a unique perspective. It’s opened up the sky as a place to shoot landscapes and gives clients an opportunity to show off their assets in a new way. There’s a huge difference in the angle of view when shooting from the ground, or even from a mountaintop, than when shooting from hundreds of metres above the landscape. The same scenery gains another dimension, and the viewer gets a much better understanding of the surroundings. Done in the right way, drone photography and video is one of the most interesting forms of visual expression.
How do you balance commercial work with personal projects, and why is this important?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with some great clients over my time, and the work I do is extremely varied. One day I’ll be working for a multinational company and the next I will be shooting for a small local business. This commercial work allows me to fund personal projects. Commercial work is producing work to a client’s brief, whilst personal projects allow me to fully control the outcome of my images. I enjoy the challenge of working to a client’s brief, but personal projects allow me to express myself fully. I think a healthy mix of both commercial and personal projects is most satisfying.
How do you stay fresh and inspired creatively?
In the early days it was simply looking at the work of others and reading photography books and websites. Now I find inspiration comes from my subject matter, especially with portraits. Getting to know someone is key to the inspiration for the image or series of images. I recently shot an award winning portrait book called Australia Street; it’s a book of people from my street. There’s a video on my website that shows how the book was inspired.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Spare time is spent surfing and looking after my two young kids. There’s a bit of golf in there, teaching the kids to skateboard and discovering our beautiful natural environment here on the Coffs Coast. I’m also renovating part of the house and spending time creating an edible and native garden.
Where can people see more of your work?
I’ve been working with a very talented Coffs based web design company to create my latest website. It has portfolios, client case studies, as well as behind the scenes videos on the sets of my shoots.
You can see videos of Mel B, Dame Edna, the shooting of my award winning portrait book, Australia Street, as well as landscape and drone photography pages at www.zahn.net.au