Robert Llewellyn has been making photographs for more than half a century. He now lives with his wife Barbara in Earlysville, Virginia, where he works out of his home studio.
Robert grew up in south-central Virginia and first worked with a camera in his senior year in high school when he became editor of the student yearbook. Walking around campus with a Nikon camera around his neck that year opened up a new world for him. He studied engineering science at the University of Virginia and photography with Imogen Cunningham in California.
Robert answers questions about himself, his experiences as a photographer, his forest and wildlife photography, his photographic technique, and what equipment he uses. He mostly explains what makes photography such a fun way to experience life.
"A photograph has a frame with things inside and outside. Make sure there is nothing inside you do not want. Things at the edge create tension. Things in the middle create calm."
What is your home studio like?
I live on the Rivanna River outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. My studio is half of my house. I have 60 acres of land — in the middle of 87 million acres of forest — so I could go out my door and collect nature samples. I like working at home.
Where is your favorite shooting location?
I don’t have one. I like the visual challenge of making a photograph wherever I am. Sometimes a place I have never been before tends to light me up because it’s all new.
Can you name a few of your artistic influences?
When I created the earlier books on trees, flowers, and seeds I was inspired by the work of Karl Blossfeldt with plant forms in 1929. Forms that for the most part were hiding in plain sight. Exquisite. Blossfeldt also made nature images in the 1930s for his design students. They are extraordinary.
For the forest project, I went to painters of landscapes. I looked at William Turner, James Whistler, and most of all Anselm Kiefer.
What motivated you on your nature projects?
We all have a round-trip ticket to planet Earth. Imagine Earth is a new planet. What would you do? You would say "wow" a lot. That’s what humans involuntary say when we experience something "new".
I wanted to explore everything as a new adventure and find out how everything works. I wanted to find out how everything is connected.
How did you get involved with The Living Forest project?
Writer Joan Maloof and I both had books published by Timber Press. Joan is a scientist and biology professor. Timber wanted to publish a forest book, so we created this collaboration.
What an opportunity it was for me. I want to learn everything I can about this planet we live on. I like mysteries. We don’t know it all by far. As a photographer, I am drawn to finding and seeing new things. There was no hesitation on my part.
How did you first start to photograph seeds and when?
I published a book with Timber Press called Seeing Trees in 2011. I wanted to learn about the life of trees, so I began studying them closely. I would bring parts of the tree into the studio — like leaves, flowers, fruit, and seeds — and photograph them on glowing light tables. The images were reminiscent of 18th- and 19th-century botanical paintings.
From studying trees I went on to publish another book called Seeing Flowers in 2013. There are 240,000 flowering trees and plants in the world, all of which have flowers, fruit, and seeds. I studied the seeds and realized plants all have a plan to produce offspring. The flowers would attract pollinators and then drop the petals and construct seedpods, usually bearing no resemblance to the flower.
I became very interested in this transformation and created with Timber Press another book called Seeing Seeds (2015). To create The Living Forest (2017), I spent two years looking and photographing all of the plant and animal life in the forest. I saw how interdependent everything was, and went deeper into how seeds play a role in the forest for the plants and the animals and did more of the close seed work.
I photographed the seeds from a new point of view. Every plant and animal in the forest has a plan to create offspring. Often the plans depend on each other. Humans have a plan also — marriage leading to offspring.
Any chance you’ll be focusing your camera on the urban landscape again?
I have started a new project that is not a book. I call it the Orb Project since we live on a wet ball spinning at 1,000 miles per hour, careening through a vast void at 67,000 mph — for 4.5 billion years. I have collected orbs for many years as well as machine parts, bones, and ancient artifacts.
I think collecting anything changes your view of the planet. You see the things you choose to collect everywhere.
I am making complex layered photographs of the things I found on Earth as evidence of the rise of all plants and animals. I do many images about the evolution of humans and the civilizations that arose and collapsed. So I am back somewhat to looking at urban landscapes as evidence of our very complex current human civilization.
How did your first experience behind a camera in high school affect you?
I was amazed at how the camera changes you. I was sort of invisible before, and then suddenly with a camera, it’s a whole different interaction. Before this assignment, I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Once I picked up a camera I knew I wanted to be a photographer, no looking back.
It was a complete paradigm shift for me. I suddenly found things that had been hiding in plain sight. I went from not noticing the world around me to discovering humans for the first time.
The wonderful thing about photography is that everything is new. I started seeing things that made me say, “wow.” I say that a lot now. My task was to document life at a high school for one year. Now I photograph life on a broader level and in different forms.
What’s it like for you being completely surrounded by nature?
I see everything as nature. Humans are just another creature mingling among the others, doing what humans do. Humans do interface with the forest and wildlife. Humans are mammals and are one of the inhabitants of this planet, and we are very active in changing the landscape, air, etc.
Humans build things like cities and buses. I think of a city the same way I would think of a hornet’s nest or birds that instinctively build nests. Sometimes a forest scene is a barely visible library of what came before.
What’s it like photographing animals?
Finding animals is not very difficult in the forest. Once I choose to photograph animals, they are suddenly everywhere, hiding in plain sight. Some are larger than me and some are microscopic. Some you discover under the fallen log.
My work with small seeds for my Seeing Seeds book gave me the skills to get extremely close. I greatly admire photographers who have devoted their lives to making amazing wildlife images. They can put on camouflage and sit and wait for days, often using extremely long and expensive telephoto lenses. Sometimes nothing appears.
Forest animals do not generally hold still for photographs. They do not like humans and will run away, or bite you and run away.
Have you ever photographed animals in captivity?
Yes, I have photographed some animals in captivity, when it’s my only option – taking care not to harm them in any way.
Images of some wildlife can be hard to capture, really skittish animals, for example. Some wildlife photographers use camera traps. There are some great images captured that way. I prefer not to have my camera taking photographs without my being there.
I wanted a wood mouse ear close up. I guess I could have crawled on my belly at night. Or covered my nose with almond butter.
What have been the most challenging aspects of your projects?
The most challenging thing for me was to get a grasp of this other civilization living with us, the humans. With this forest book and my other plant books, I discovered every life form has a plan, all plants and animals. Their mission is to reproduce their species.
There is interdependence in the forest. For example, the blackberry lily has brilliant orange flowers to attract bees and get pollinated. Then it drops the petals and forms a black seedpod containing its offspring. The pods look like blackberries. Bears like blackberries.
The plan. Interdependence.
How do you make your images stand out?
Do not make any photographs that look like everyone else’s. If it looks familiar it is not new. You want to make “new”. See the planet. Collect things. Make everything as if seeing it for the first time.
You need to decide what you want to put in the frame and what to leave out. This changes how you see everything giving you a new window to the world. For my photography, there are no bad subjects, no bad light, no bad weather (but maybe bad clothes). There is always a way to make it work.
Discover for yourself. There is still an enormous amount about Earth that is unknown. Photography is an awesome way to explore Earth. Look at things without naming them. When we name something we think we’re done.
Go for “wow”.
How do you keep it fresh each time when you shoot the same sorts of things?
I call it the “elseness” exercise. What else is it? What else is it? What else is it? There is no end.
Photography has infinite possibilities. Being a photographer is a great adventure. There is always something new to see and photograph. There is always more to see and learn about trees, for example, and about everything else.
What role does observation play in photography?
The skill of observation is vital, moving from looking to seeing. At a party, you can just mindlessly chatter with people, or you can really see them — what their bodies, gestures, and emotions are communicating. As with meditation, just relax into observing, to embrace things as they are.
Stop labeling things or worrying about what they are called. Labels and names get in the way of seeing things as they are.
How do you decide what to shoot in the forest?
Mostly I go into the forest without a list. For a photographer, anything can be a good subject, even dirt. My mission is to move people from merely looking at things to deeply seeing things as they are.
When I change from looking to seeing, things call out to me, “over here, do me!” The test is “would it hurt if you left and did not make a photograph”?
Sometimes I was directed a bit by my project partner, Joan Maloof. She would say, “Go into the forest and turn over a fallen decaying log.” I asked, “What will I see?” She said, “I am not going to tell you”.
She once did give a list of specific things to find in the forest – like a treasure hunt. I live in the middle of 87 million acres of forest. With help from some assistants, I did find them all.
What time of day is best for photographing outdoors? Weather?
Some say you cannot make good photographs at noon on a clear day. Some photographers only go out in first light or last light. So you get maybe fog and red skies. I don’t think there is a best time.
You can make a photograph no matter the time of day or the weather. Look straight up and you might find, say, an awesome backlit forest canopy.
I like to go out in what people call “bad” weather. Rain, snow, freezing rain, fog, wind, clouds. Whatever. Play the conditions, as they say in sports. The landscape changes with the weather and seasons. The Norwegians say “there is no bad weather, only bad clothes.”
What are good photo composition strategies for capturing landscapes?
I have heard there are rules of composition. My personality does not resonate with rules. Do the “elseness exercise”. Lie on your back. Crawl on your belly, etc.
Be wild. Be bold.
Explore it with your camera, with no idea what the image will look like. Make lots of images. You learn from each one. And you grow. The one you will like the most is the one you could not have possibly imagined.
How do you source your seeds and decide on what kinds to photograph?
Most of the seeds I collected myself. I really like having a project where you collect things. It changes how you see the planet. Most seeds are hiding in plain sight. Many we eat. Some can be found in the grocery store. Many gardeners knew about my project and would give me specimens.
I still see seeds everywhere.
How do you prepare the samples before photographing them?
I wanted to photograph small parts — e.g., leaves, fruit, bark, and flowers — so I would cut off a bloom, twig, or seed pod and put it on a light table. Then I take hundreds of photos which, strung together, are infinitely sharp, like a botanical drawing. I found I could zoom into my subject up to a pollen grain this way.
Some seeds are a foot across and some are the size of the period at the end of this sentence. They are three-dimensional, so you have numerous options on how to look at them and photograph them. I look at it from all angles with the camera. I explore the seed for a while, and at some point it will call out to me.
I often have ten or more versions of the same seed. I have over 2,000 images of seeds.
Do you prefer digital or film photography?
Digital by far. Digital is sharper, has greater tonal range and can be easily edited in Adobe Photoshop.® Photoshop reminds me of when I used to make black-and-white prints in the darkroom. Photoshop is the new darkroom.
With film, you are at the mercy of the characteristics of the film.
What do you recommend taking for a day of shooting in nature?
A camera. Actually any will do. You can make great photographs with your telephone. The iPhone® has a great camera for the size of the sensor. The small sensor gives you amazing depth of field, in fact.
Depending on where I am going, I bring a wide selection of lenses, from 14mm to 1000mm. I make lots of photographs (remember “elseness”). I even make several frames at different distances and stitch them together in the computer for more sharpness depth.
I shoot most photographs with a good tripod. I have a really heavy one for windy days. The tripod is a two-edged sword, but it does steady the camera for sharp images. I handhold the camera to frame what I want and then I move the tripod under it.
There is a school of thought that hand-holding a camera gives you way more freedom to explore and see new things. It is also good if you like backgrounds out of focus. The downside is that your photographs may not be really sharp. Most unsharp images come from camera movement during the exposure. Human error. Oh, that beating heart.
There is one animal in the forest that really likes humans. Ticks. They will bite you. Very, very dangerous wildlife. Wear repellent. Put it on everything, even clothes. I have a small blanket treated with permethrin that I use when I want to be on the ground.
Lastly bring more batteries, water, food, towels, and clothes than you think you will need. Bring a phone for emergencies.
What equipment did you use during the forest project?
Most photographs were made on a tripod with a Canon EOS 5DS R that has a 50mb sensor. I used a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV for moving wildlife because it could track focus even through dense tree branches. I really don’t know how it does that.
I have been a photographer for five decades, so all the different lenses are an extension of my eye. It’s like a tennis racket is an extension of your arm.
For the forest project, I used a dozen lenses with focal lengths ranging from 14mm to 2000mm. Different lenses change relationships of things in the frame. Infinite choices. It's like 3D chess.
What technology do you use for photographing seeds?
To make the image sharp from top to bottom, I use a technique called "focus stacking". Some seeds are very small, so getting the whole specimen sharp is a challenge.
I put the seeds on a glowing light table in my studio and do a series of photographs at different focus points from top-to-bottom, overlapping the sharp parts. I make a series of photographs, as many as 100, each at a different focus point. I start at the top and move downward to the bottom. It works sort of like an MRI.
I then load the images into stacking software, like Zerene Stacker® or Helicon Focus®, and they get stitched together — using the sharpest parts of each image — into one combined image that is infinitely sharp.
How do you protect camera equipment from the elements?
I know they make cases to go on cameras and lenses that are waterproof. I change lenses so often they don’t work for me. They are good if you shoot wildlife and you are sitting in rain all day with a long telephoto lens, waiting for wildlife to appear.
I use an umbrella. I have many. All different sizes. I can put them on a stand or over my shoulder or down my coat in the back so my hands are free. Because of wind, don’t tie the umbrella to a tripod.
"Pick up a camera; it’s a fun way of life."