Across the island of Madeira, water winds its way from forests and mountains to the shore through a vast network of irrigation channels called levadas. For British environmental photographer Toby Smith, following the water was the perfect way to a tell a dynamic landscape story with an environmental message, while challenging young Slovak documentary photographer Michaela Nagyidaiová to try new techniques and kit.
The two photographers worked together in Madeira as part of the Young Photographer collaboration between Getty Images and Canon that champions up-and-coming image makers. Toby mentored Michaela, a Photojournalism and Documentary Photography MA student and freelance photographer, throughout.
"The creation of Madeira's levadas was a historical, positive environmental intervention that has been protected by UNESCO, and they now flow into hydroelectric power stations, so there's a nice green energy layer that's been added onto the levadas several hundred years after they were built," says Toby. "I was also interested in how, in a modern context, they're helping fuel eco-tourism."
Touching on landscape, sustainability and climate makes this typical of the kinds of projects Toby covers, in the unique niche he has carved out in environmental and industrial photography. He has covered hydroelectricity in Scotland, water scarcity across the Himalayas and renewable energy in China. He has worked with National Geographic, The Guardian and the BBC Natural History Unit.
Michaela often makes work inspired by a sense of place, and has an interest in aftermath photography – exploring locations of significance to see if any remnants of the past are visible on the landscape.
"This project in Madeira was really interesting for me because it was basically about [aftermath photography] as well," she says. "We were going to these historically significant places and recording what's left. We wanted to capture the authenticity of the island and its biodiversity, connecting the environment to its historical context and modern uses."
"The concept of the shoot was to use the water as the narrator. We wanted to start at the island's highest point, the watershed, too see how that landscape looked. Then we'd choose an exemplary levada to represent the flow of water across the island, and finish with some of those uses for it," says Toby, an advocate for deep subject and geographical research to build a story ahead of a shoot. "Water was the narrative backbone, and it flows through all the geography."
Toby mainly relied on one camera, a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, paired with a versatile Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. Michaela mainly used a Canon EOS 6D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lens – although she also used the wider Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens for many of her favourite shots.
Deciding what kit to pack comes down to the kind of story being told and the demands of the location, says Toby, whose regular kitbag often also contains a Canon EOS 5DS R, a Canon EF 11-24mm f/4L USM lens and a Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM lens, plus whatever primes he has space for.
"It's about making decisions based on a balance of equipment and time on location," says Toby. "For a project like this, the 5D Mark IV means I can have one body for the whole day, don't need to use a tripod too often, can grab high-quality video and if I'm in a hurry or doing something handheld, I can crank the ISO up and be happy with the results."
The Canon EOS 5D Mark IV's inbuilt GPS module, negating the need to add one to the hot shoe, is of particular benefit to Toby. "Geo-tagging is always a part of my process, and in the last four or five years I've been working a lot more with NGOs and academia, especially geographers, so it's how I organise my work. Having GPS data written into a picture is the most essential part of the metadata for me – it's how I view the narratives, both practically in my studio, and also spatially in my head."
As the pair explored the human impact on Madeira's diverse landscapes, they put their L-series zoom lenses through their paces, shooting from mountain to forest to coast.
The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM is a lens that has become a "starting point" for Toby as he has moved away from carrying a range of primes to relying on the zoom lens to cover the same focal lengths. "Five years ago, I would not have had a zoom on my camera at all, but it's got to the point where they produce great images throughout the range. The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM pretty much lives on the camera and goes back on before it goes in my bag. Now I just add a 50mm and 35mm prime in my bag for key shots."
Michaela found that the Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM zoom lens that she used for much of the shoot helped her to pick out interesting landscape compositions. "I try to photograph the whole landscape first, but then I zoom in, like I'm doing test shots, looking for one exact point to focus on," she says.
"Throughout this trip, I kept zooming in, because I really wanted to be closer to things. The Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM is very versatile, allowing you to photograph at different lengths."
Focusing on close-ups and detail fed into Michaela's narrative about the changing flora and fauna seen in the south of the island. "What I found really interesting about Madeira were the textures. I tried to capture the red and dry textures of the mountain ranges, or the dry vegetation, to connect the landscape to the water."
Michaela also picked up new ideas from watching Toby at work. "The two things that I tried incorporating into the project were really taking the time to plan in advance and to not rush your photos. I sometimes feel I am taking photos quickly to have a bigger number, and I liked seeing Toby really take his time with it – set up a tripod, wait for the correct lighting and just take one or two photos of the landscape. You know the photo is going to be good because you took your time with it."
Water led them on their journey through the island, from levada to ocean scape and neatly to their final photographic location – a brutalist hydroelectric power station nestled in a coastal alcove, harnessing the power of the levadas' flow. "I'd joked that the ideal finish to this project would be where a levada meets the sea on a picturesque beach, with a hydroelectric power station and a tapas bar," laughs Toby. "We found an amazing location on the north of the island which had all of these elements in one place. This singular location was a real score and gave us the ending we wanted."
1. Know your subject matter
"My practice is subject and narrative-led. The research and engagement and networking are as much a part of the process as photography is. You should really know your subject matter, not just photographically, so read around it. The important thing to my work is doing most of the homework and research before I go to location, and to have an idea of a narrative structure, rather than just approach it from a 'pretty picture' perspective."
2. Seek out issues
"An issue has to be something that will be relevant and important to an audience or that will add to a debate. That immediately scrubs out projects that have been covered well by other photographers or are already getting traction in the media. I'm not going to add to a cluttered index around the subject matter. I look for things that I feel are pressing or urgent to do, or that haven't been covered, or haven't been covered well enough. This also means looking at communities and the organisations working on that issue, to look for collaborators and finance. I make sure I'm not shooting work in isolation or making a noise on my own."
3. Allow a specialism to emerge organically
"By working up a strong, concise narrative structure at a project level, you're not putting pressure on yourself to specialise in that area. You're producing a body of work, and then suddenly you'll find you've produced 10 bodies of work that have a theme among them, and that's what you're specialising in. With me, power stations led to hydroelectric power stations; having a cross-section of power led to work in China on energy; and I built up like that. Overlapping themes of projects can make you a specialist, or at least have an identity about your own career."
1. Structure your shoot
"Planning is one of the things that I really like to do in my work. This shoot made me even more aware of how important it is to research and map everything out, as Toby took the time to do. I really don't think that we could have made this work if there wasn't a solid plan. Plan your trip to see if you have to get up early in the morning or work late into the evening and what will work best."
2. Find a story
"Finding a story behind your photographs is really important because then people can get a bit closer to what you're creating and why. Ever since our first day, we were following the flow of water around the island and photographing that in order for our story to have an impact and not just be another landscape photoshoot."
3. Always pack a tripod
"If you can carry a tripod, try to take one, because you never know what kind of situation you're going to get yourself in. You may find you really want to take a good photo with a tripod when you don't have it. In terms of evening photography, a tripod is really useful in order to take photographs that are good quality by keeping the camera still, even when it's a bit windy."