From a young age, Scott Forsyth felt torn between pursuing a career in art or science. Growing up in Burlington, Ont., Forsyth practiced drawing and painting and almost opted to attend the Ontario College of Art and Design, but his innate curiosity about the natural world led him to study biology instead — and, later, law and medicine.
Today, Forsyth has struck the perfect career balance: for most of the year, he practices family medicine in Calgary, but for six to eight weeks each summer, he works as a photographer and naturalist aboard expedition cruise ships, travelling to some of the most remote places in Canada and documenting their beauty and drama. His commitment to promoting geographic education and land conservation through his images have earned him fellowship in both The Royal Canadian Geographical Society and the International Explorers Club. A book of Forsyth’s landscape photos and essays, The Wild Coasts of Canada, is due out in October from Rocky Mountain Books.
Here, Canadian Geographic’s newest Photographer-in-Residence shares insights into his unusual career path, his essential gear, and his advice for aspiring photographers.
On how he found photography
When I started medical school, I didn’t have time anymore to really pursue painting, so I started walking in nature with a camera and began to realize that you could use it for more than just documenting things; you could create artistic compositions. That was the beginning of photography for me, and I just carried that on into my career. I’m still practicing medicine four days a week, but I take Tuesdays off to work on photography.
On exploring Canadian landscapes
In the 80s, I went off and lived in northern Japan for a couple of years and backpacked through Asia, and that experience made me realize that I didn’t know my own country very well, which was very poignant. I wanted to pick a subject to focus my photography on, so I decided I’d get to know Canada. That was when I discovered this phenomenon of expedition tourism; I could go off for two or three weeks and discover a place that would be quite difficult to get to on my own.
On bringing a landscape image to life
Landscape photography is most powerful when the light is powerful. I’m always looking around for a scene where the light is doing something interesting, whether it’s illuminating clouds or silhouetting something. Unlike painting, you can’t create the composition; you have to deal with what nature has given you, so I’m also looking for simplistic, strong lines. If something else is happening — if there’s wildlife passing through or even people in the distance to give perspective and scale — those are often the most powerful images, because they tell a story and they help people put themselves in the scene and feel the magic of being there.
On memorable moments in the field
Some of my favourite places to shoot are around large ice, like Disko Bay in Greenland. There are these icebergs that can be a kilometre in height from the ocean floor to the peak. Just being near them connects you to this greater sense of eternity. You hear ice cracking all over the place and whale breaths bursting through the silence. It’s like a cathedral of nature. That’s one of the places that I go back to every year if I can. Other times I just like being alone. Once I went to Peggys Cove, N.S., for a conference, and I would go out every night and just sit there, taking pictures sometimes if the light was good but otherwise just waiting. To me, that’s the gift of photography: it can either be something that distracts you from being in the moment or it can be something that helps you be more aware of where you are.
On the challenges of shooting landscapes
Unlike a studio, you don’t get to control the light. And you’re dealing with nature’s elements as they are. I’m always trying to evoke something similar to the grandeur of being there, but often when you’re out in a place and you look at it through a camera, it’s disappointing. It forces me to get creative with composition. Nowadays I usually carry a really wide angle lens and a telephoto lens, and I either compress the scene to show detail or try to get as much as I can into the frame to give a sense of space.
On his essential gear
Always be prepared for failure! That means travelling with two camera bodies, extra batteries, rain gear, lens cleaners. I also like to have neutral density filters and a polarizing filter, even though I can replicate some of those effects in post.
On his advice for aspiring photographers
I took workshops with Freeman Patterson early in my career — his books on photography and creativity are what really turned me on to photography as an art form as opposed to painting and drawing — and he told me it’s always good to play with a camera, just for fun and creativity, but you should also think of a body of work that you want to create. Assign yourself a subject or an emotion and try to take pictures that reflect that, and learn the visual language around it. We’re inundated with photographic imagery now, so I’m always asking myself, what is the point of what I do? I set out to shoot Canada, knowing it would take years, but it got to where I finally had enough images to make a book, and that book can convey something that no one single image can. So I would advise people to not worry about the gear so much as their eye and their purpose.