PAUL K ROBBINS MAY HAVE HAD A PHOTOGRAPHY CAREER LASTING MORE THAN A QUARTER OF A CENTURY BUT HIS FIRST SHOOT WAS ALMOST HIS LAST.
When it comes to first job foul-ups, Paul K Robbins’ was a proper corker. With the ink still drying on the new graduate’s certificate in photography, Paul’s first paid gig was to capture what many consider one of the most significant days of their lives, their wedding.
Having snapped away dozens of shots as the happy couple exchanged their vows, Paul confidently shot off dozens of snaps before headed home after the celebrations. It was once home he discovered he had made a classic rookie error and neglected to feed the film properly into the back of his camera.
The fact he can laugh about it now is evidence of how far he has come but the 50-year-old father of two says it was difficult to see anything but the dark side back then. “There were a lot of missed shots that I thought were being captured. I was gutted at the time but we learn from mistakes and that has never happened to me again.”
Twenty-six years down the track and the seasoned pro has yet to require a second chance. His chance at redemption came when he was given a very restricted time frame during a shoot for a major cycling brand at the Yas Marina F1 racing circuit in Abu Dhabi. “The high cost of hiring the racetrack for our exclusive use put the pressure on to get the shot within the allotted time. We got the shot within the first 10 minutes of the 30-minute shooting window which cost $25,000 of track time.”
Having built a career as the go-to guy for commercial, government and non-profit photographic work, Paul has enjoyed a long and varied career. Named official photographer for a myriad of sporting and cultural events, his work has appeared across billboards, company websites and annual reports for organisations as diverse as the Sydney Olympic Park and the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANTSO) and Better Homes & Gardens.
He has also shot a wide range of people from the Dalai Lama to British Royalty and Jamie Oliver. A former competitive triathlete himself, in 2012 Paul branched out to publish his first book, As the Crow Flies, a fly-on-the-wall photographic essay following his training partner, world champion Craig Alexander. Plans are now afoot for a second book, but this time with the subject matter based on the performance car scene.
Later this year he will begin work shooting modern day images of the ANSTO facility to match the same location as the catalogue of images created in the 1960s by celebrated Australian photography icon Max Dupain. The finished work will be shown beside Dupain’s to showcase how much ANSTO has changed over the decades.
Paul says the diversity in his work and his ability to remain nimble, rather than pigeonholing himself into one genre, has allowed him to remain competitive when it comes to commercial considerations.
“To tell you the truth, we do commercial work for the money – we have to live and put food on the table but I do enjoy the challenge of creating work for all my clients. You bring your vision and years of experience to the table and that has an intrinsic value. No one should be creating commercial work for free.
“My non-profit work I consider my passion and that is my family. I always have a camera handy so I can document my children growing up and capturing those precious moments which are fleeting and will never happen again. I see it as capturing history. I’m leaving a legacy to my children and the generations to come.”
Paul’s interest in photography began on a school excursion when he began taking photos of an old girlfriend at a Central Coast-based theme park. The early attempt proved successful and from the moment he saw the finished product he was hooked. Evidently a creative type, he later went on to work in colour reproduction and in the graphic arts industry, specialising in drum scanning film media.
But while he may have a background in the graphic arts industry and colour reproduction, Paul insists he is an old school photographer at heart. “My unique background in colour reproduction gave me insight into the best techniques to create that honesty and integrity in the image-making process, which is a cornerstone of my brand. I document imagery as an honest account of what I’m seeing with my eyes and through the camera – I’m not trying pull the wool over anyone’s eyes with heavy image processing or misrepresenting what’s in front of me.”
Paul’s first camera was a Nikon FE2 with an MD-12 motor drive and a 35mm E series prime lens and was purchased before the days of Gumtree or eBay via a classifieds buy-and-sell newspaper. Always flying the flag for Nikon, his association with the brand has endured because the lenses – which he describes as the foundation of any camera system – are “razor sharp”.
Today he still uses that original mount alongside a range of must-have gear including a Nikon D5 camera body for “low light and drive speed”, a D810 for studio work and a D500 which he says is like a mini D5 but “only half the weight”. A D4S is currently used as back up. His favourite lenses include the NIKKOR AF-S Micro 105mm f/2.8G IF ED (1:1) VR, a NIKKOR AF-S 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, a NIKKOR AF-S 24-70mm f/2.8G ED, a NIKKOR AF-S 70-200mm f/2.8G ED VR 11, a NIKKOR AF-S 300mm f/4E PF ED VR, a NIKKOR AF-S 400mm f2.8E FL ED VR and a NIKKOR AF-S DX 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED VR.
“Nikon products are what I know – I believe their lenses are superior and glass is the most important factor in creating great imagery. Their digital SLR menu system is intuitive and it feels like the grip and size of the cameras are custom made to my hands. But most of all is their reliability and toughness which has always been the reputation Nikon has been known for in the professional world. It has, and continues to be a beautiful partnership.”
Yet even with an arsenal of the best photographic gear alongside him Paul has proved he prepared to suffer physically for his art. As the official photographer for the Summernats, he regularly shoots for 13 hours straight, dedicating a further couple of hours editing and uploading after that. His dedication to his work often resulting in just an hour’s sleep before waking up repeating the same demanding schedule for all five days of the festival.
There is also a risk of personal injury. “I’ve [also been known to] hang out of a helicopter to get aerial shots of the cars doing burnouts – handheld with a heavy 400mm lens – just moments after sustaining an eye injury from a piece of tyre rubber flung at me from a car. It’s in those moments as a professional that you have to put aside personal discomfort and injury and just get the shot.”