An Interview With Mat Beetson

Mat Beetson - West Australian Landscape / Aerial Photographer

Mat Beetson has been bringing us stunning and colourful images of the beautiful North of West Australia for many years. But what you may not know is his depth of experience in the photographic industry and wonderful story. 

Mat takes us on a wonderful journey into his photography, sharing his passion and fantastic stories. 

You stated that your photographic career began in 1991, you were 14 years old working for Kodak Perth CBD. Your job was to process film and sell cameras. In this time, you had a fascination with cameras and gear and had to know how they worked. Back then your top pick was the Canon EOS 1 Pro film camera. Times and technology have certainly changed along with cameras and their functions. What do you find are the positives and negatives of the transition from film to digital? Do you find the simplicity of operating cameras and processing images today is effecting photography, and if so, why?

Certainly the excitement in creating your vision is still there, but it is just a matter of application. Shooting on film and seeing the end result took time and as a student in my early years you counted each exposure in dollars per shutter actuation. I think the best part of shooting film was the anticipation — that build up to finally receiving the slides or prints come to life in front of you was a roller coaster of emotions both high and low.

Whilst digital brings a new level of challenges with hard drive storage, constant battery charging…lugging a computer around with you if you travel frequently….I also see these as a great benefit too. Being able to take your ‘darkroom’ with you wherever you go is pretty awesome.

I believe the simplicity of operating cameras and processing has definitely changed photography, but that depends on your point of view as to how it has detracted or improved. As a salesperson working at the peak of the digital photography explosion it meant the market’s appetite for photographic equipment was growing exponentially and that was great for hitting sales targets.

On the flip side it removed some of the expense and complexity of ‘learning’ photography, so the entry point to embark on this as a career choice is low cost and so many people are now equipped with a very intuitive camera/Phone in their pocket.

Whilst there have always been part time professionals even during the films days, I think there are significantly more people now, trying to make a living from photography. But never in my wildest dreams did I believe that some newspapers would consciously choose to remove their entire photographic departments in favour of sourcing images via social media, nowadays it seems necessary.

After 27 years working in the photographic industry helping people and businesses achieve their photographic goals. Can you tell us why you made the switch from someone that supported the industry to a professional photographer?

Well, I didn’t really know which path to take when I first picked up a camera so I can’t say I immediately wanted to be a photographer, but I knew I wanted to pursue photography if that makes sense.

After a couple of years working full time for Kodak I was fascinated with wildlife and had a good friend that was a keeper at Perth Zoo. He lived on site and provided me with unfettered access after hours to shoot, I spent a lot of time there trying to improve my technique. Being exposed to this environment made me want to be a wildlife photographer even more. It provided me with an opportunity to work in Africa (me plus my zoo mate) with Southern Parks, relocating Rhino and Buffalo through different national parks as part of their breeding program. It was an amazing adventure as the first country I ever visited outside of Australia and an incredible photographic experience too!

I had dabbled in trying to generate an income from photography with some of the images I had captured at the zoo, the odd job and assisting a wedding photographer or two, but I never immersed myself in it. I really loved the jobs that I was doing, so that burning ambition to be a photographer wasn’t strong enough for me to attempt jumping in full time.

After a long time of joy and sustained success in my career I started to get burnt out. I quit the industry and a job that I loved to experience a sea change in Broome, it was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made. It was during this move that I finally sought the path of becoming a fully accredited member of the AIPP, a long term ambition on my journey as a photographer. It also keeps me connected to the industry, and part of an amazing community to compliment the wonderful friendships I’ve made during my career.

It also meant that I could be part of an organisation that holds a very high standard for photographic excellence and of course I was curious to see if I had what it takes. Whilst I’m not a full time professional, I will keep striving to produce a very high standard of work that I do for clients and to maintain a profile that supports this possibility in the future. One thing is certain, I am truly grateful to be where I am at right now.

2019 was an incredible year for you. You won the Western Australian Nature Photographer of the year, became a finalist in the Australian Nature Photographer of the year and the winner of the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the year. Your image “Fins Whale Demise” was one of 2,219 images entered in the Australian Geographic Awards and the first drone image to win the prestigious competition. Some comments made from the judges were – “despite seeing millions of nature photographs over the decades, we have never seen anything that remotely resembles this image” and “Unique and exciting, it reveals incredible beauty in death”. Firstly, a huge congratulations on these accolades, with so many talented artists in the field out there it’s not an easy feat. 
 Can you describe to us what winning these awards felt like for you? Describe how entering competition improves your photography and skills? How do you handle constructive criticism of your images?

Thank you very much I really appreciate it. Last year just seemed to get better and better as it went on and I was absolutely thrilled with winning the WA Epson Nature Professional Photographer of the Year at the start of the awards season. It was a real break through moment for me, I never expected my name to be amongst some of the greatest names in the photographic industry as a category winner at the Epson State AIPP Awards, very humbled and thankful.

I was unable to attend last years’ WA Epson POTY awards but watched the live feed (from home in Broome). I had some unfortunate technical difficulties just before the Nature category result and I missed the announcement! Howard at Camera Electronic, a mate I’ve grown up in the industry with, was attending and he sent a text and later called to congratulate me, so it was a really nice way to find out I’d won.

Winning the Australian Geographic Nature Photographer of the Year award was something else! It was a wonderful experience and such a huge honour. The awards night and international publicity from the announcement was incredible, it really is a world class event. I had no idea what was in store for me on the day I arrived at the SA Museum to accept the award, a few hours doing interviews, press photos and news crews. The image announcement was circulated worldwide and my face was in various publications — scary! So it was a little bit overwhelming, but still an experience that I will remember vividly and with such fondness.

Entering the AIPP awards has played a huge part in my growth as a photographer, more importantly watching the live judging. It is critical to hear feedback not just on your own images and sometimes that can be difficult, but also from other photographers and genres. You may not always agree with what’s said and that’s ok the judging process is subjective, but mostly the feedback will be helpful. Using this critique, recognising your own style and strengths and continually applying these in practice will fuel your growth pretty quickly.

By entering competitions you really have nothing to lose and if you produce a good standard of images and take that first tentative step, then you’ve already won a huge battle — with yourself. I often enter the same images in different competitions, sometimes they crash and burn and sometimes you might just get lucky and win it all.

Your image on your website “Lone Mangrove” was captured along the shore of Roebuck Bay in Broome Western Australia, has won multiple awards. Can you tell us more about this image and why you think it has stood out amongst your other images to win multiple awards?

This was one of the first images I entered into the WA AIPP awards and I received a Gold for it, something I was really proud of and it is special to me. I guess the image stands out first of all because it is an aerial image, a genre that has gained significant popularity in recent years. Also this is in an area and of a subject that we are not typically used to seeing, particularly the red/ochre coloured shoreline clashing with the soft hues of the water and tide coming in. It is very simple in composition but offers two views, the first representing the authentic top down view of the mangrove. The second is more interpretive, the red sand represents the Earth, the tree stands upon it as it reaches out towards the blue sky. This is the vision I had when I produced the final result and was really proud and humbled when legendary photographer Tony Hewitt described it as such during the judging process — which he scored in the Gold range.

One of the things said most about entering a competition is to try and produce something the judges haven’t seen before…somewhat challenging in this digital age with photography now in the hands of billions. I’m also pretty lucky to live in a place like Broome, azure blue water and red sandy beaches are incredible to see. But it is not just about going to places that are untouched or remote or even shooting aerials. The greatest (most recent) example I can think of someone producing outstanding work in area’s that are densely populated and people would commute past daily! Is the mesmerising and incredibly beautiful portfolio that won Mr Mark Brierly WA Epson Professional Photographer of the Year 2019. I think this is a great example for people to look within their own backyard for inspiration, however saying that probably doesn’t hold the same meaning coming from someone who lives in a place like Broome!

Besides your camera equipment, you shoot with a drone DJI Phantom 4 Pro. Many of your images are aerials and your “Fins Whale Demise” image was shot with a drone. When did you decide to start shooting with a drone & why? Are there advantages and disadvantages of shooting with a drone over traditional aerial photography from a plane or helicopter, and what are they?

Tell us about this project and how important it was for you? How do you make a connection with people? And, how do you approach photographing strangers?

I really thought drones would be a passing fad…that was a bad call! It was hard not to get caught up in that initial excitement when we started seeing images on social media of this somewhat unique perspective. The Phantom 4 Pro I considered to be the first acceptable resolution Drone, I had a play with one and was hooked immediately. Not just for the new way of shooting but the joy of flying, It was like a cross between a Playstation flight simulator and a camera, very addictive.

Drones offer the ability to get to some scenes that you can’t with a Helicopter or light aircraft, the reverse is true too. But the portability and low entry cost to an acceptable image quality makes it more and more viable as a photographic tool. Having a camera that can be charged pretty quickly and gets you in the air whenever you want — there is a lot to love about it.

The ability to hover over a scene and take the time to compose an image is something you don’t get with flying in an aircraft, plus if you don’t quite capture the shot you can reposition or adjust the altitude of the drone quite easily. There is limited capacity to do this in an aircraft and at upwards of $1400/hour to charter, you are at the mercy of your budget. So my shooting technique is slightly modified if I’m in a helicopter! That being said, lately I do find myself shooting more from a helicopter, it is hard to look at the files from the Phantom 4 Pro when you’re comparing it to Fujifilm’s GFX 50/100 MP series of cameras. Sure, I can stitch the drone images to produce a decent file size but the lack of dynamic range is a killer, it really doesn’t come close. I could buy a drone kit to mount the GFX…but then I don’t get the thrill of flying in a helicopter.

Drones will get better, faster, more megapixels and more dynamic range it is a natural progression. Although the great majority don’t compare in quality with our ‘normal’ photographic cameras they are still good enough to sell images in galleries and win photographic competitions.

What challenges do you drone photographers face in the future with tightening restrictions? What piece of advice could you give a photographer who is starting out in drone/aerial photography?

I’m all for rules and regulations to keep the airspace safe, but also to keep the public out of danger.

On the one hand I’m a drone photographer who wants access (within reason) to as many places as possible that allows me to safely shoot a scene without having a significant impact in that area or to the public. At the same time I want there to be strict governance so when I am in a helicopter I’m not at risk of hitting one of those rogue drones from flyers who think its ok to disregard the rules.

Drones took off at a huge rate of knots (pun intended) and I think the popularity was underestimated by the regulators, so the rules that are now in place are really just catching up with the times. There is also a really good awareness campaign for the rules, when I started people didn’t know they had to seek permission from the DPAW (Department of Parks and Wildlife) to shoot in some of our parks in WA, even though it was not a restricted airspace according to CASA. So I think part of the stigma with ‘rogue’ drone flyers has stemmed from that initial lapse in regulations being introduced, but there will always be some that still challenge them.

If you are starting out first check in with the CASA website to see what is expected and required of you. After that flying a drone is really easy, all the work is almost done for you. Use common sense when you are about to fly, check conditions and the surroundings, if you have a good pre flight plan then you generally won’t have too many problems. Last of all go out and have fun!

After working 27 years in the photography industry in retail and with the manufaturers, you have met many photographers, or worked with them. You have viewed, printed and analysed many images. Are there any photographer/s who influenced or inspired you and if so why or how?

Yes, there were a few photographers who influenced me when I first started learning. As I mentioned I had dreamed of being a wildlife photographer, travelling through Africa and India chasing big cats. I was inspired by Jonathan Scott and Joe McDonald before my fascination with landscapes started to impose on me.

In my job with Fujifilm and Canon I got to meet a lot of photographers too, just catching up with them as part of my day to day workload talking about equipment. It also meant hosting or attending events with them, it was hard not to draw inspiration from their presentations. Christian Fletcher did a presentation on his use of Canon equipment from capture to print that I had coordinated in WA. As a Canon representative it was a huge success having Christian advocating for our brand. For me it was also the first time I heard him present, so to hear how he went about his image making process was really cool.

Another of the big events back in the day was the AIPP Fujifilm weekend away, down in Dunsborough is where I first got to meet Peter Eastway and see him present. The things he discussed really opened my eyes to image making and to see him talk so passionately to all levels of photographers at this event was impressive.

I do however have to send out a big nod of appreciation to my former work colleagues from my days at Plaza Cameras in Perth CBD. The people I worked with at this place have given me some awesome memories and each with their own unique talents. It was also a photographer breeding ground too! To name some of the talent; Yane Sotiroski 2017 AIPP Australian Landscape Photographer of the Year (and one really cool brother in law), Steve Wise 2018 AIPP Portrait Photographer of the Year, Alan McDonald 2013 WAEPPA Portrait Photographer of the Year and Lee Griffith 2011 & 2013 WA Press Photographer of the Year.

The crew from Plaza taught me many things, not just photography related — we all shared an immense passion for the craft. But as we worked together we also shared our life’s joys, weddings, births of our kids and later in life our accolades in photography. They are a great bunch of people who I am still lucky to call friends and they inspire me in life and in the passion to create and perfect our craft.

You live in one of the most beautiful and prestigious parts of Australia, Broome Western Australia. Broome is also a highly sort town where tourists flock each year to experience its such beauty. The pearling capital of the North West where you can take sunset camel rides on the 22 km white sandy Cable Beach, see ancient dinosaur footprints at Gantheaume Point, view the staircase to the moon at Roebuck Bay. It is also described by David Attenborough as “one of the greatest wonders of the natural world”. Over the years many tourists as well as photographers or Instagrammers are saturating towns and iconic locations to get that “perfect shot”. What effect/ impact (if any) do you see photographers having on the environment? What role do you see we have in protecting the environment and highlighting these to our peers? The Yawuru people are the Traditional Owners of Land in Broome. How do we as photographers respect Aboriginal people, their culture, and honour their land/environment while photographing?

It’s a beautiful town and if you’ve never visited then I cannot recommend it enough! It really is a place where adventure awaits, a photographers playground and yes the people and culture is pretty special too.

It has certainly become popular with ‘instagrammers’ but we are also starting to see many international aerial photographers coming to photograph some of the unique places that are in our region. I get a lot of engagement on Instagram and most are respectful of the work/shots I do, I have also met a lot of wonderful friends from this type of engagement! However, there are some ‘instagrammers’ that take it too far and just flat out request really specific location, time, tide details (perhaps it would be easier if you just send me your exif data too please?)! There is just no adventure in that.

The Kimberley region is a great place to explore and you cant help be inspired by the land and its people, the images are there waiting for you. If you simply follow a plan of ticking off a shot list you’ve seen before, then you’ll miss what’s really important. This is the joy of experiencing the Kimberley, watching and embracing all that makes it such a wonderful part of the world.

I’m passionate about our land, indeed our Earth and for its protection for future generations. But I believe our traditional owners say best in the following statement which I believe is of Yawuru origin:

“Wirlankarra yanama. Yurlu nyinku mirada yurndarirda”

which translates to “Go with a clear, open and accepting spirit, and the country will not treat you badly”.

If we could all live by such simple philosophies our world would be a very different place and I feel if you embrace that philosophy when you come to the Kimberley, then she will gift you with her wonders through the lens.

Can you tell us about one of your favourite photography shooting moments or adventure?

Anytime I’m in a helicopter, but it might come as a surprise but I’m absolutely terrified of heights! My last shoot was in a Robison R22 with a 35knot tail wind around Carnarvon, we got thrown around quite a bit during this flight. But the strong aversion to heights and less than ideal flying conditions aren’t enough to keep from returning to the air.

The story behind capturing ‘Fin Whales Demise’ was interesting. You can’t really plan for a shot like this, but how I got to be at this location was really unexpected too. I’d travelled down to Albany to shoot the coastline and beautiful beaches, on the drive down it rained non stop. There was also a huge fire burning through the town and the rain was not as helpful as you might think, so access to a lot of locations were blocked for emergency services.

Justin, a mate who joined me on the trip started doing some research on his phone to check conditions and areas we might go to and news of a beached whale came up. We drove to a little coastal town nearby called Cheynes Beach and the whale was literally 150m from where we parked the car, it was very surreal.

By this stage there was sunlight out but it was really windy and not favourable for flying a drone. But as the sharks arrived I tried a test flight just off the shoreline to see how it faired in these conditions, I slowly gained altitude and everything was fine. After a few successful flights and some captures of the scene, I still hadn’t managed to capture the sharks around the whale. But patience paid off and they returned about 45 minutes later, the winning image was one of the last photos of the series.

It wasn’t my favourite photo and there were some others that were published in a newspaper article and when it got featured in the West Australian Newspaper I decided to enter it into the Aus Geo competition.

What part do luminosity masks and ADP LumiFlow play in your post processing? And how important are they in your workflow?

Its everything to me! I’m so terrible at using photoshop…all the nights spent working with an Adobe guru in my past life (sorry Brent) who would strongly resent that comment! But the reason I love ADP Lumiflow is the layout and immediate access to most of the type of tools or functions I might employ.

I consider myself to have a decent understanding of Photoshop, but don’t really utilise all the tools as much as I should. Having the panel and features at my disposal keeps it uncomplicated, it’s the first thing I go to once an image is imported and the last I use to finalise an image — it is a major element in my image creation.

I was first interested in ADP Lumiflow after seeing it advertised, having a 2x Western Australian AIPP Photographer of the Year producing something like this I had to see what it was all about. The videos had me hooked! It resonated with me because I could see it was born from a photographers view and what tools they might require, so I tried it out.

Very happy that I did and it’s been a part of my process for a number of years now. For me the ADP Lumiflow is another excellent tool that has helped progress and improve my photography. The panel itself, the great tutorials and of course the updates – It is such a wonderful product!

We really enjoyed hearing your story and photography journey so far, and we’re looking forward to what is next, thank you Mat.

See more of Mat's beautiful imagery