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Award Winner Filip Gierlinski On Why A Great Photo Can Take Years

We talked with the London-based photographer about what it takes to stand out in a sea of 3,700 submissions.

The winners of this year’s British Photography Awards were revealed last week at an award ceremony at The Savoy Hotel in London.

More than 3,700 photographers submitted their work to the contest, and a panel of expert judges chose winners in 12 different categories. The awards also included a People’s Choice winner for each category, for which the competition received about 74,000 votes.

Filip Gierlinski, a London-based freelance photographer using Format, took home one of the People’s Choice awards for his portrait of a three-year-old Mongolian boy named Embe shooting a bow and arrow.

It’s a powerful shot that’s rich in color and shows some masterful use of lighting and composition. It also conveys the effort the subject exerts as he strains against bowstring, donning traditional clothing and eager to show off his archery skills.

Gierlinksi says his award-winning image is a culmination of all the skills and experience he’s picked up during his career as a corporate and business photographer. We spoke with Gierlinski via email to talk about his approach to photography, his career, and how he captured the winning shot.

Format Magazine: Why did you choose that photo as your submission to the contest?

Filip Gierlinski: I have been developing a cinematic style of environmental portraiture over the past few years on my travels, and the shot of Embe is a culmination of that vision, practice, and development. It is really symbolic to me and my journey as a photographer.

In a way, it has taken me about 10 years to take that shot; learning my craft, getting the right kit, developing my own approach to portraits and building up my travel experience.

The creative vision is to have the subject backlit by the sun to add an edge light from behind, and shoot with a very wide aperture to blur the background. Exposing for the landscape leaves the subject as a silhouette, so I add the big fill-in flash and using high-speed sync I can achieve the desired aesthetic effect and still maintain balanced exposure by shooting on manual and at about 1/5000s - 1/8000s shutter speed and f1.4 - f1.8.

This was the highest profile industry awards I have submitted to and I wanted to put forward a shot that represented my whole ethos and reason why I do what I do.

I’d like to know more about the photo, can you talk about what was going on that day and how you got it?

The shot was taken in August 2017 in Western Mongolia. I was leading a photography tour for creative holiday company Frui, and the group was having a homestay experience with the local families.

Archery is a very important traditional activity, for hunting and celebrated as a national sport. The family was sharing their skills and we were relaxing and testing out shooting in the afternoon sun.

I had been doing some portraits, and when I saw Embe pick up the bow and gesture he wanted to play too, I immediately recognized a great photo opportunity. We had a local guide with us, and she suggested he run off to get his traditional smock, called a “deel,” so he would look his best.

My new kit consists of a high-speed sync battery flash with a large softbox so it creates a studio style flash set up, but it’s portable enough to be able to travel and drag it all to remote locations such as this. I had a specific shot and portrait style in mind, and after setting up the flash and framing the shot, I invited Embe to come and do his thing.

It took a few frames to get it right, and then we were good to go. He pulled at the string, and our guide held the end of the arrow so he was facing the right way. I directed them both a bit to get the shot I was after—shooting at f1.6 there’s not much room for focus error.

As he pulled and shot an arrow, it was a good photo, but nothing special. “Ok, this time Embe, really pull hard as you can, and shout!!”

We got into position again. He pulls, I focus, I shout, he shouts, I shout louder, he shouts louder and pulls even harder…and click, the tension, strength, energy and focus all comes together and I’ve got the perfect shot!

How’d you first get into photography?

My uncle is a very accomplished craftsman and very keen and skilled amateur photographer. I always loved to see him draw, paint, design and gave me my first Minolta x370 35mm manual camera when I was about 8, so it started there.

At school and university, I studied art subjects. I graduated in Graphic Design and worked for a year as a junior designer.

Then, a friend was working in a commercial photo studio and needed some summer intern cover, and I jumped at the chance. Three months turned into nearly four years at the studio, and I learned the skills, techniques, discipline, equipment and it opened my eyes to the industry and business of commercial photography.

I have always had a passion for travel and I was eager to get outside, into the sun, and shoot people and places…..we worked on products, catalogs and room sets at the studio which was an amazing experience and training, but not what I most desired to be shooting.

I was fortunate enough to learn my trade in the days of film, and came to professional photography just as digital was breaking in and the industry was opening up and shifting. This gave me the technical skills of shooting on film for many years, and the ability to buy my first semi-pro digital SLR and advertise online for freelance jobs—so I had the best of (understanding) both worlds.

How did you come to specialize in business portraits and corporate photography and what do you like about it?

Part of my early freelance work was shooting business portraits, and so I started to advertise specifically for corporate headshots and portraits as a separate arm of my work, and this has become the main source of my income and commissions over the past few years.

I have shot for huge companies with thousands of employees, as well as small businesses, professionals and entrepreneurs. I try to bring a sense of style and creativity, and an editorial feel to the ‘Corporate Headshot’ and think that defines me with a distinctive look and product.

I enjoy bringing a bit of creativity and style into the corporate world in my own little way, and years of shooting thousands of people means I can read with my sitters quickly, make them feel at ease and connect with them which is something that shows through in my portraits. The skill is to do that within the 4 or 5 minutes I have with each person, sometimes up to 60-100 times a day!

Your portfolio also shows off some of your travel photography. Is that also something you do professionally or more of a hobby?

I have never really had money to just go travel, but always looked for jobs where I could see the world. I have spent time as a tour guide in South America, teaching English in Nepal and India, and more recently working as a tutor has taken me all over the world.

I have been lucky enough to be able to balance seeing the world, with a family life and earning here in the UK. I don’t shoot travel stock or go with any intent to produce a commercial library, but more to see the people, to document their lives, to capture a story, as I feel my travel images are much more personal stories and of a more editorial feel than commercial. This may all change as I shoot new projects and seek to follow my vision.

It is still my dream to find a way to move more towards travel and editorial commissions but I am lucky to be able to make ends meet through a job that I love every day.

What accomplishments in your career are you most proud of?

This award is the first for me, and as the People’s Choice, I am really proud to have my work acknowledged by the public as well as industry. Especially with a shot that means so much to me and what my photography is all about.

I am very grateful to have worked for some amazing clients, including shooting commissions for portraits for Google and Microsoft, at Royal Ascot on behalf of the Dubai Royal Family, at luxury hotels, cyclists in the Alps, my all-time favorite bands at rock festivals, and travel commissions in far-flung destinations.

I consider every contract I secure to be an accomplishment, but you never stop developing and trying to get out there, to shoot more, to try new ideas and just keep pushing.

The British Photography Awards is an annual non-profit competition and event that aims to celebrate excellence in British photography. You can view more of Gierlinski’s work here.

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