Foundations to Photography

Struan Purdie started his work-life on the tools, before eventually pursuing his passion for the outdoors and filmmaking full time. He shares a bit about his story, as well as some practical tips for anyone wanting to up their camera game on their next adventure.

My earliest memories of filmmaking were running around with my grandad’s camcorder during a family holiday in Wanaka. We used to record ourselves skateboarding then huddle around the wee flip outside screen to watch the action. I was hooked. Despite this early passion however, I never dreamed that making films and taking pictures would ever become such a big part of my life.

My first job out of high school was nowhere near a camera. I worked for a mate’s dad building residential foundations. The crew was awesome and the work was hard – laying blocks, tying steel and pouring concrete. It was a great way to blow high school out of the system, but the work quickly started to slow. As 2008 rolled around, the global financial crisis hit New Zealand’s building industry hard. By April, our work had all but dried up and the boss sent us home. One of the lads was getting into hunting at the time so the two of us packed the work van and headed bush to chase roaring red stags. We would spend a week at a time in the mountains, then come out, check in with the boss on the work situation, then head back to a new spot. This was where I discovered my love for hunting and the outdoors which would later come to define my working life.

Fast forward several years of travel, university and countless questionable renovation jobs through Student Job Search, and I was finally doing something somewhat related to photography and videography. My journalism career started at TVNZ in Auckland before returning to Christchurch, where I worked for the Australian Associated Press. A couple of years chasing ambulances and political press conferences was all I needed, so I started looking around and stumbled on something a bit different. 

A family friend owned a guiding business offering high end hunting trips to rich overseas visitors. I approached him with a proposal and soon found myself tagging along filming from helicopters, boats and high-end lodges in the middle of nowhere. It was an awesome gig. One day we’d be on the West Coast hunting chamois, the next we’d be heading to Mount Cook for a scenic flight. I learned a lot using a camera outside too. I learned how to read natural light and position myself for the best shot. I learned how to tell a story through film. I also learned that Americans are terrible at hunting in New Zealand and most can’t shoot a rifle to save themselves! 

While it was a super fun job, the guiding season only lasts for six months so I figured I needed to hustle some more clients. I was determined to stay working outdoors so ended up trawling the internet looking for cool companies that might need some photos or video. It’s funny what doors open when you hammer on a whole bunch. I’ve been fortunate to work with some incredible New Zealand companies and events, capturing everything from brand content to documentaries and TV commercials. 

A massive highlight came earlier this year when I got the call up to shoot video for the internationally renowned adventure race GODZone. The event started in Rotorua and did a big grueling loop of the wider Bay of Plenty region over eight days. Athletes had to kayak, mountain bike, pack raft and trek around the clock to complete the 666km course. Each day was incredibly diverse and we found ourselves filming from boats, swamps, trucks and helicopters. 

I remember we spent an entire morning flying over the Kaweka and Kaimanawa Ranges to capture the action. One moment we were filming the lead team descending out of the fog on a high ridge, the next we were hovering 20 metres above the Mohaka River as competitors negotiated tight bends and rapids in pack rafts below us. I made the mistake of wearing shorts and a single down jacket for the shoot, which was three hours in a helicopter with no door. Once we landed, I was near frozen. 

Another cool gig was heading down to the Catlins in the middle of the roar to shoot images for a great New Zealand hunting company called Bushbuck. We spent the week chasing stags in the beautiful Southland native bush. I’ve been lucky enough to travel all over the country with Bushbuck and we’ve certainly got some awesome shoots lined up this summer. Photography and filmmaking have literally become a way of life for me. I love it. And I’ve learned a few things along the way – often through miserable fails.

Here are my top tips for capturing your next outdoor adventure with awesome photos and videos…

People: Beautiful scenics are great but without you and your mates, you may as well jump on Google or YouTube. When photographing or filming your next adventure, try to incorporate people into as many frames as possible. Get them talking! Where are we? How did we get here? As well as personalising your content, humans also add scale to huge landscapes – think tiny person, massive mountain.

Light: Everyone has heard of the golden hours – sunrise and sunset. Any photos or footage captured during these times is going to look 100% better than full sun at midday – I promise. Pay attention to weather also. A cold foggy morning. An approaching Southerly front. Different weather systems can create dramatic visuals.

Depth: Layers are good. Ask yourself these questions: what is my subject? What is my background? What can I place in the foreground? Maybe you’re shooting a mate kayaking down a river. Tuck into some scrub and get low. All of a sudden your shot is framed by some leafy greens and the mountains are towering behind old mate as he plunges down the next rapid. 

Shoot. Shoot. Shoot. Practice makes perfect. I still learn something new every time I pick up a camera. The only way to get better at something is to do it a lot. Make a point of taking a camera on your next adventure and give some thought to where you point it. I promise you’ll soon have some awesome keepsakes – and you’ll have a lot of fun along the way!

Article by: Struan Purdie

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