Creative Lives — From Usain Bolt to garden bugs: A closer look at macro-photographer Levon Biss’ career journey

Posted 19 July 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

Insects, people, soccer. Levon Biss’ website confidently captures the commercial photographer’s evolving practice. For over 20 years, the London-born, Wiltshire-based photographer has shot everyone from Usain Bolt to French President Emmanuel Macron. But after moving to the countryside, Levon was on the lookout for new challenges. It was his son who unexpectedly found the answer in their own back garden: A ground beetle. The find ignited an interest in macro-photography, and today he has established himself as something of an expert in the field – switching his subjects from big names to some of the world’s smallest insects. The series, titled Microsculpture, has since gone on to become a book and a travelling exhibition – he even gave a TED talk about it last year. He recounts his early lucky break as a documentary photographer, talks perfecting processes, and balancing commercial and personal work. 

Levon Biss

Job Title

Photographer

Based

Wiltshire

Clients

Adidas, HSBC, TIME Magazine, AstraZeneca, Virgin, O2, Channel 4, Channel 5

Education

BA Photography, Kent Institute of Art & Design (and Universitad De Bilbao, Spain)

Website
Social Media

Levon in his studio

Day-to-Day

How would you describe what you do?
Over the last six or seven years, my job, and photography itself has evolved. I was initially in commercial photography, doing lots of sports portraits. But after 15 years, I was looking for a change and moved to Wiltshire eight years ago. By doing that, my photography, career and lifestyle changed. Now it’s a bit of Jekyll and Hyde situation where 70 percent of my work is niche and macro-based in Wiltshire, and the rest is portraiture and sports work in London. 

What does a typical working day look like and where does it happen?
When you work for yourself, you can dictate your hours, but I keep a very much nine-to-five job. I’ve got friends that float around coffee shops during the day, but I can’t really do that. I’ll be in my studio in Wiltshire at 9am without fail, until 5pm. It can be tricky when you’re working for US clients, particularly on the west coast due to the time difference. 

Obviously, once you have children you have to take more note of work-life balance. But it’s not really a job – photography is what I do. If you took photography away from me, I’m not sure what else would be left. It’s one of the first things I think about when I wake up, and one of the last things I think about when I go to bed. I’m happy to let it consume me all the time. 

“At the moment I spend 70 percent of my time by myself with dead insects.”

How collaborative is your role?
At the moment I spend 70 percent of my time by myself with dead insects. But it can vary, some days I’ll spend ten hours a day alone in my studio and the next day I’ll be in London on a shoot with 50 people. But I've been doing this for 20 years, so, it's quite easy to wear two different hats, so to speak. Once I've done a big stressful commercial shoot, I love coming back to my macro work where there isn't the pressure of clients or money. It's quite a cleansing process. 

What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
I enjoy the challenge of working out a problem. On the commercial side, the client will contact you with a concept of pictures they want and you have to work out from A to B how you create that picture within a set budget and parameters of the brand guidelines. 

With Microsculpture, it’s a purely technical task, and it’s exciting when you get it right. There’s lots of different problems you face that don’t occur in regular photography. And because it’s such a niche market, and you’re doing something relatively new. It’s just trial and error; a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to work out the solutions. I enjoy the macro work because it’s mine, it’s not impacted by the commercial world and untainted by money. And it continues to evolve, and every image I shoot is better than the last one – that’s energising. I’m the most inspired I’ve been since I started photography. 

Flying saucer trench beetle

How did you get into macro photography?
I’ve been shooting for 20 years, and you get to a point where you get stuck in a rut. Especially with the style of sports photography, you’ll be shooting the same kind of image, just for a different client, with a different person in front of you. 

So I was looking to do different projects. I had these big visions of documenting monsoons in Asia or something epic like that. But then one day my son brought in a little Graham beetle from the back garden, and we looked at it under his microscope. It made me realise how stunning these creatures are up-close. It became the first insect I photographed. It was a challenge to see if I could take all the lighting and studio skills, that I’d be honing for over 20 years, and translate them onto a subject that was five millimetres long, and still keep all the clarity and the creative control.

“It was a challenge to see if I could translate all the skills I’d honed for 20 years onto a subject that was five millimetres long.”

I started researching macro techniques, microscopy, objectives and microscopes and shooting my own specimens from the garden. After a while, the photographic process got to a point where I felt I needed better specimens to shoot. I went to the Oxford Museum of Natural History, presented some of my work and asked if they were interested in collaborating. I kept zooming into the images and they couldn’t quite believe what they were seeing. They gave me open access to their entire collection, and the assistance of their entomologist James Hogan who helped me find and prepare the specimens. I worked with them on Microsculpture for three years. The project launched in 2016, and we’ve currently got shows in Denmark, Germany and Houston, USA. 

At the moment is that the interest in the macro work is starting to rise. To the point where in two weeks time I’m shooting a campaign for an agency in the UK that is all macro-based. So my commercial work is moving over to the macro world, which is nice. My existing clients are now expecting me to shoot sports and portrait with macro.

Levon's TED talk

What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I was recently in a jungle in South America, shooting photos for a TV documentary that will come out at the end of next year. The producers came to me after seeing my micro-sculpture work and wanted me to use that technique to produce video out of my still images. I spent one month in the jungle, and I shot about half a million pictures in that time. That will make approximately 45 seconds of footage in the finally documentary. Working in an environment like that is completely different from everything I’ve done before. 

I’ve just finished working with the National Museum of Qatar. I photographed 20 of their local specimens for a new museum that’s opened there. It took three years to photograph 20 insects for Microsculpture. This time, I had eight months to shoot 20 insects, so I was working on that full-time. I'm also working for the National Health Service of Australia at the moment. They’re hatching mosquitoes for me to shoot and sending them to me next week. 

“The National Health Service of Australia are hatching mosquitoes for me to shoot at the moment.”

What skills would you say are essential to your job?
It’s key to understand the final image that you’re after. I started off in documentary photography, where you have to adapt to the situation unfolding in front of you, but that’s harder in commercial work. Now, I think it’s about having an idea, having the vision of the final picture in your head and being able to formulate the process, from A to B.

It’s also about preparation. Particularly with commercial work, I’m a bit obsessive about how everything is planned out. Turning up to the shoot, and taking the photo should be the easiest part. You’ve done test shots, you’ve gone over everything, and everyone should know exactly what they’re doing. So once you get the subject in front of the camera, that should be easy.

It’s the same with macro work; you have to be very precise at every different stage of the process, you can’t rush it. If you mess up on one bit, it’s potentially seven or eight days’ work you throw away.

Amazonian purple warrior scarab; and blow fly

Splendid-necked dung beetle; and short nosed weevil

Common reed beetle; and darkling beetle

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Pleasing fungus beetle; tiger beetle; and tortoise beetle

Orchid cuckoo bee; lantern bug; mantis fly

Treehopper; tiger beetle; and tortoise beetle

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What do you like about working in Wiltshire?
My studio is an old shed on a country estate, so I look out onto rolling fields. You're much more aware of nature and how seasons change. It's probably no coincidence that I ended up focusing on insects as a subject.

In London, there's a certain energy you pick up on a day-to-day basis, which you don't really appreciate until you're gone. Being in a solitary place like Wiltshire, you have to sort of energise yourself. That buzz from the city is gone. But as much as I loved being in Shoreditch, the flip side is, I breathe fresh air. Wiltshire is a nice place to work if you want a clear head space. I should have done it years before. People smile over here. 

What tools do you use most for your work?
Nikon D850 camera; Nikon SB 5000 speedlites; various home made tube lenses and extension tubes; Nikon, Zeiss and Mitutyo microscope objectives; Photoshop; Zerene Stacker.

Microsculpture exhibit at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Microsculpture exhibit at Xposure international Photography Festival, United Arab Emirates

Microsculpture exhibit at Neues Museum Biel, Switzerland

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How I Got Here

What did you want to be growing up?
Up until the age of 17, an illustrator. In fact it was studying illustration on a foundation course that got me into photography. I was doing laser and light prints on photographic paper, using the cameras as a tool for illustration, before a technician gave me a camera to play around with.

How useful have your studies been in your career? 
After my foundation, I applied to Brighton, Newport and Bournemouth but everyone rejected me. So I got a one-way ticket to Corfu instead, and spent eight months playing around there. I landed back in the UK, and four days later I ended up on the photography course at Kent, on a clearance place. 

To be brutally honest, I don't think it was very useful. Out of the 36 students in my class, not even a handful of people are still doing photography. But I think at that age, it’s more of a life experience than an educational one.

One of the failings of universities and colleges is that don’t teach you how to make money from photography – they teach you how to be an artist. But you can’t be an artist straight off the bat. That’s why so many people fall by the wayside, because the reality is, you’ve got to pay rent. So, if you can’t make money from photography, then you’ll get any job you can, and then your photography starts to move to the side. 

“Universities and colleges don't teach you how to make money from photography – they teach you how to be an artist.”

Jessica Ennis

Usain Bolt

President Emmanuel Macron of France

Danny Boyle

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After graduating, what were your initial steps?
After I left college, I worked at factories and warehouses, packing boxes for a couple years. And then I got a lucky break with a marketing agency called RPM, where the head of their photography department gave me a job as a junior photographer. I took a portfolio of quite conceptual college work; it had no real relevance to the kind of work he was asking me to do. I turned up to the interview in a three-piece suit, and I think that made him laugh. But maybe he saw potential in me. He gave me cameras and threw me in the deep end; it was a sink-or-swim scenario. By the time I was 25, I was working on global ad campaigns for the World Cup.

It was actually quite soul destroying, but it hardened me quite quickly. And at the end of the day it was either do that or go back to packing boxes with a degree. I was lucky to get this junior photography job within a couple of years; a lot of my contemporaries, even in their late twenties, were still assisting. I had a head start on everyone else. 

“I’d rather go down a route in photography that no one's doing, and be the best there is with that.”

I used to go to the studio and work on my own stuff between 6am and 9am, then switch to agency work from 9am until 6pm, and then back to my own work from 6pm to about 10pm. I did that for three years until I had a portfolio that was good enough to take around to different agencies. That’s when commercial work started coming in. I never intended to become a commercial photographer, but now it’s probably 70 percent of my turnover. 

What’s been your biggest challenge along the way?
Probably adapting. You go through different phases in a career. When I was in my early twenties, the changeover from film to digital was happening. I was fortunate enough to be on both sides; the last generation of film photographers and the first generation of digital. The generation of photographers before me couldn’t get their heads around digital and didn’t want to evolve. 

I think we’re seeing the same thing now. The current generation are growing up on video. My job as a photographer won’t exist in ten years’ time; I’ll just be seen as an image-maker. For me, I’ve only just started to hit my stride with my photography, and I don’t really want to dilute my attention with video. I’d rather go down a route in photography that no one’s doing, and be the best there is with that. 

Soccer photography by Levon

Soccer photography by Levon

Soccer photography by Levon

Soccer photography by Levon

Thinking Ahead

What would you like to do next?
I’m not planning that far ahead, to be honest. What I’ve learned is to remain curious. If you find something interesting, pursue it. Don’t think about it being a commercial thing. If it works out, the chances are other people will be interested in it, too. So I’ll just keep doing stuff that interests me and then see what pans out. 

Could you do this job forever?
Oh yeah, there’s nothing else I'm good at! What else could I do? But you’ve got to stay curious all the time. You’ve got to keep trying new things, otherwise you just become stale and stagnant. That’s no fun for you or the people looking at your work. 

Potter wasp

Words of Wisdom

What advice would you give to an emerging creative wanting to get into the same line of work?
Look at yourself more as a creative and an artist, rather than focusing on the commercial side of things. Because that, in a sense, is what will get you the commercial work. 

There’s a danger in following trends. You might see what other successful people are doing and consider pushing your work down that route. I think that’s the worst thing you can do, because you’ll always be one step behind. The best thing you can do is work out what interests you.

Don't look at a subject from a photographic aspect. Learn about it and then see how you can adapt photography into that subject. If you work hard enough, and the quality is high enough, then other people will latch onto it.

I get asked all the time: what’s the secret to having a professional career? It’s not rocket science, it’s just bloody hard work. There are too many people in the creative world that think things will just come to them. The best documentary photographers in the world have amazing work because they have practiced for months and months to grab the opportunity to take that one epic photo. Keep working hard with a creative head, and don’t be afraid to fail.

Posted 19 July 2018 Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Collection: Creative Lives
Disciplines: Photography
Mentions: Levon Biss
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