Interview with adventure photographer and cinematographer, Garrreth Bird

Garrreth Bird

Garrreth in his favourite place – on the mountain

Garrreth Bird is a Cape Town-based photographer, cinematographer and videographer particularly well-known in the adventure and outdoor space. He’s worked with National Geographic, Animal Planet, and hundreds of local and international brands and production companies. While he has a beautiful eye for photography, cinematography is his greatest passion, with dozens of documentaries, short films and corporate films under his belt.

I met Garrreth for a chat about his work and his passions, his thoughts on Cape Town’s adventure scene, and his path to becoming the photographer and cinematographer he is today!

Tell me a bit more about yourself

I’m a Capetonian, and I’ve always been sort of outdoorsy, so I’ve been taking pictures outdoors forever. I got into the film industry a million years ago, and worked my way through various departments, and then started shooting, myself. And so I’ve been an independant filmmaker and photographer for over a decade now. I love the mountains specifically, so I try to combine my passion and my work. But over and above that, I just love great adventure films, so I make my videos out of passion as well.

My favourite endeavour is rock climbing. Especially if you’re a Capetonian – there’s so much out there.

Yes I saw you do a lot of climbing! How do you tend to shoot them – do you usually climb up before the person you’re photographing and kind of hang and photograph, or how does it work?

Well, one of the best ways to get images is to be part of the action. So, there’s definitely an access that you get from being enveloped in the thing you’re shooting. On the other hand, it’s very hard to shoot climbing unless you set it up properly – not the shot, but where you’re going to be; in other words, are separate from the climbing. And shots of people leading – going first – you need to be somewhere else. So that’s quite complex to get into the right position, and sometimes you’ve got to get ahead or scramble on some sketchy little thing on the side. It’s also very handy to be on the mission, so that you can take shots of the little moments as they unfold.

Why did you become a photographer / cinematographer?

When I was starting out, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I travelled a lot and I started sending postcards back to people here – this is that long ago – and I just realised that choosing these postcards and looking at all these beautiful images was one of the most inspiring things… so that was one of the first keys, was that wow – this is something I love. And then having a camera on my travels and slowly improving my eye and my technical skills over the years. So it was through that and my love of films and music and how they connect emotionally that I started realising that this is actually my zone.

So you find choosing the music for your videos to be an important part of the process as well?

Ja absolutely, I love music and I feel very connected to something that has a beautiful soundtrack. There are some parameters in terms of rights and suitability, and the music should push the story forward rather than being just the music you prefer. But no, it’s a very satisfying part of the process, when the music clicks.

What, to you, makes a great photo?

You want to express an emotion, or arouse an emotion in the viewer. That’s your number one goal. If that emotion can come across, then to some extent you’ve achieved something. Then you get onto things like, you know, telling the story, what is that person doing, what is happening in the image.

Especially as you move into video – all your shots, the light, everything is bringing across the story. In a still image, it’s a lot more stripped back, a lot more simplified. But you’re trying to achieve many of the same goals. And then there’s a lot of the technical things that you want to get in there, which often lead to achieving that. But that’s sort of the kernel of things.

Do you usually approach your work with an idea of the storytelling, or is it something you start and it kind of unfolds and you see where you go?

Ja it’s a bit of a mix. Ideally, you want to start with an idea of the story first, because it makes the rest of your workflow much simpler. The only problem is, especially in documentary shooting, you often have no idea what’s going to happen. And even more so in the adventure realm, where the idea of the story is this overarching goal, and who the hell knows what’s going to happen along the way. And what the hell is going to happen along the way is the story! So you need this basic, very simple overarching idea, and then off you go. You have to roll with the punches from there.

So, that’s the more free-form documentary stuff. There are documentaries where it’s very formalised and you’ve got that story sort of set because you’ve done a lot of research. Drama is even more formalised because you’ve got your script. The more you deviate from that, the more wobbly things become, unless you’re fixing problems or following great ideas. It’s really a variety of stuff. And it’s the same with still images, if you really want to get a fantastic shot you’ve got to work at setting that thing up.

But sometimes you’re just going and seeing what happens, and you ask the person in it, the subject to just do little things to get there for the shot. Sometimes, though, you’re working around what is actually happening, and just adjusting things slightly. But sometimes you go out to get a set image, you know what you’re going to do, you even go and reccie (reconnaisance) it, work out the time of day, you work out the colour scheme, see if the person can do that thing, and get there in the position, etc. so it’s a whole realm. And other times you just turn around and see something amazing and you snap a picture and it’s fantastic.

Interesting – I remember seeing one of your photographs, the person’s climbing and they’re wearing bright red. Do you sometimes choose what they’re wearing so that it makes the picture pop, or do they just wear what they’re wearing?

No, often you care really a lot about what your subject’s wearing, because it can define the photograph in a way.

You don’t want them to wear beige in the Cederberg

Ja problem is a lot of climbers are scallywag dirtbags

Not wearing bright snazzy colours

No, because a lot of your clothing gets trashed if you’re really adventuring in the rough hills. So it’s a little bit of a running joke that photographers are always criticising athletes for the shitty-coloured equipment they’re wearing. The good thing about that is, all you have to do is show someone a photograph that could have been brilliant, that is useless because you can’t see them because they’re the same colour as the background. Then they realise, and they’re on your side.

Who do you work with more, small or large businesses?

We’ll I’m more of a videographer than photographer. I do both and love both, but I’m mainly a video guy. The realm in which I work is sort of between the high-level feature film and Joe blog – so I work with people who want something that looks good, generally corporate realm or documentaries, events and the like. So companies and slightly bigger organisations are where I get most of my work.

Do you find that there’s consistent demand for what you do?

Well, there are two different kind of contradictory flows there. One of which is that imagery has never been more present and important. Images speak a thousand words, they catch the eye so much faster. But with our phones, everyone’s a photographer and can produce something that looks pretty good – especially when seen on the phone. So there’s been a real, sort of adjustment, a constant readjustment in the imagery industry for the past fifteen to twenty years, or since digital started to take over. And I wouldn’t say it’s at a settled space yet, it’s still going, everything’s still in flux, so everyone’s still trying to figure things out.

I think there’s been a bit of a course correction recently, where people realise that yeah, you can get content easily, and there’s a certain level to which that works really well. It’s very immediate, very fast, cheap, intimate. It’s great.

However, people are starting to realise that there’s a difference between that, and getting a photographer in to take images that make an impact, and that you can use to front yourself. The people holding the purse strings often take a while to realise what the difference is, so there’s a bit of a lag.

Your Instagram is mostly adventure sports – is that largely what you do?

It’s sort of what I’d love to be doing all the time, but there isn’t that much opportunity in South Africa that suits that niche, so if I could be an adventure cinematographer full time, that would be fantastic. I suppose my Instagram is my leader in that direction. But really, the person who needs something is the person who I’m working for. I’ve been in this industry for a long time so I’ve worked on most kinds of material, I do believe I’m flexible enough to be able to handle what anybody brings my way.

Which adventure sports do you do, which do you enjoy the most, and which do you think make for the best photographs?

Climbing’s my favourite to do. But in terms of coverage, I’m into all of it. I mean, I really love that feeling of seeing an image or a sequence or video that people have sort of the ‘holy shit’ response to. It’s sort of something to seek out, and it’s one of my overarching themes in still images, is to have the viewer feel the wildness of the outdoors. Every time, I get that bit of dopamine. But in terms of which sports, it really doesn’t matter. Movement and nature, drama, the environment. As long as it’s got a good dollop of any or all of those elements, I’m there.

Lovely. And I think you really succeed in it, because what I wrote here, is that some of my favourite of your photographs has people interacting with the environment, often dwarfed by it and so surrounded by it. Especially your shots in the Cederberg, my favourite area – it always looks so epic, and you capture it really beautifully. 

That’s fantastic to hear. That’s one of my favourite themes, I would say, in stills. But in video, and in commercial work, you’ve got to do what the client is hoping for, and then make it awesome. So I would just say that while I love that in my personal stuff, when you’ve got a job to do, it’s eyes on the prize. You‘ve got to take that idea that the client comes with, and give it that little bit of gold dust.

Whether it suits your personal preferences or not

Ja, you’ve got to take your personal skills and eye and mould it towards what the client says, and hopefully, how to say, add majesty to the brief, in the direction that you love.

So, what was your path to becoming a photographer and videographer?

It’s a pretty tough journey, these days especially, becoming a dedicated photographer. You almost have to have multiple skill sets to keep yourself going through times when you’re trying to break through that realm. Many photographers and videographers are doing both, because they’re kind of adjacent skills, even if one person prefers one or the other.

These days people are looking for short clips for social media, so that’s a bit easier to pull off as a photographer if you need to shoot a video, or a videographer if you need just a couple of images, because they don’t have to be a whole sort of story.

I myself came through learning very hands-on, shooting technical photographs and video on these shitty little cameras while working in the film industry and working on feature films, documentaries, everything. So I came at it from both directions, you know, these massive sets as well as on my own, just low-level with basic equipment, before starting to push the two together by making behind-the-scenes videos on film sets and shooting stuff for press and film packages.

What is your favourite space, particularly in the Cape, that your photography has taken you to?

Well, it sounds a bit boring to keep talking about mountains, but in the Western Cape we are just blessed with them, and they are surprisingly empty. There’s no one there. Which is incredible, to have these places to yourself. It gives you this feeling of being at these cathedrals, you know.

So there are many places I love, but the most fantastic I’d say is somewhere out in the Cape Fold mountains, the Hex mountains, where there are these gigantic things and you can go climbing them and you’re in the middle of these enormous walls and there’s just no one around. So that’s a special, pretty Capetonian or South African experience.

I haven’t been to the Hex mountains! I’m going to make a little note of it.

It’s gigantic! It’s enormous, it’s majestic, it’s mindblowing. The Hex traverse? Oh my goodness, it will blow your mind. You can’t even believe – you can’t really see in from outside, you don’t know what’s there, and it’s just – no, don’t even get me started. And that’s just one little corner! And then across the valley is Slangrock, and across the other way is Du Toits, and on and on.

K: What comes first for you, the adventure or the photography?

Do you usually plan an adventure so that you can photograph it, or go adventuring and bring your camera along?

Professionally it’s the job that takes preference and you do whatever you can to get it done and well. Personally, it’s the adventure that takes preference, but I’ve always got my little camera along to do a little bit of documenting. My little camera’s part of my adventure kit, you know, it’s always with me. Just a little point-and-shoot. With climbing, you’re always worried about weight, but it’s nice to have that image quality and that control. Of course, this is stills. For video it’s more complicated, everything takes more time.

Can you use a point and shoot for proper video?

Ja these days the image quality is getting quite nice for some of the stuff, so you can intercut that with more formally shot stuff and it looks quite good. Also in grading, post-production you can get the best out of your smaller-format cameras

So is post-production quite a large part of the process, especially for video?

Ja I mean even for stills, it’s what a lot of people don’t realise, they just think ‘ah just take a couple photos’, but to really get the most out of them you’re gonna want to spend some time in post-production. But with a video, of course, editing is incredibly time dense. It just takes a long time to try pull out the story. Which is one of the reasons why if you’ve got the story already worked out, it saves you time because then coming to the edit you already know your basic outline and you can start slotting things in and then just fiddle with the basic structure rather than having to create the story out of what you’ve got. Continue 33:30

What do you love best about Cape Town?

What do I love best about the city? That you can have an urban and an adventure life at the same time. It’s just insane how easy it is to get into an adventure situation, whether it be the air, the mountains, the water, the roads, or whatever it is you’re interested in. So that’s probably the best part for me, the ease with which one can move from a ‘formal sector’ life to an ‘adventure’ life.

And within one hour from here, you can go walk for four hours into a place where it feels incredibly dangerous because it’s going to be so hard to be rescued – and it’s an hour out of the city. So that range of experiences in a small geographical area.

What tips do you have for people wanting to get outdoors in the Cape?

I would say, you don’t even realise the majesty and density of amazing places that are out there. So, find out about some of these hikes, do a couple of the shorter ones to get in the groove and get your fitness up a bit, and then there’s just some incredible mountain territory to explore in the Western Cape. So underpopulated, you almost see no one out there. It’s wonderful.

It’s nice to go with a couple of people, too. If you don’t have a posse, there are meetup groups, there’s the mountain club of South Africa you can join, they’re going all the time. You’ve just got to get out there, because there’s some amazing stuff to see.

Interested in learning more about Garrreth Bird’s work, collaborating with him, or buying a print? Check out his website, or follow him on Instagram!

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