It takes an admirable degree of intelligence, technical prowess, and attention to detail to keep a 362 foot nuclear submarine operating beneath the oceans of the world for months at a time. James Bland did just that aboard the USS Birmingham SSN-695 when he served his country in the elite “Silent Service” of the United States Navy. After two years becoming an engineer in the Nuclear Power Training program, Bland spent four years as a Weapons Officer on the Los Angeles-class fast attack submarine during the Cold War.
With the Naval Academy and military background of this Battle Creek, Michigan native, it’s no surprise Bland tries to get it right the first time. Although he will do minor tweaking in Photoshop and Lightroom, this photographer tries hard to get his images as close to perfect in-camera as possible. He applies a meticulous methodology to shooting which helps ensure his post-work is kept to a minimum.
After some time in the private sector in his post-Navy years, Bland found himself living in Hong Kong, where his wife was working. When not studying Chinese, he walked the streets with a Canon SD20, shooting images casually at 5 megapixels. One of his photos from this time won an American Airlines contest for a marketing campaign.
Back in the United States, Bland spent two years with a fine art photographer, both shooting film and helping run his business. After that, he stepped out on his own and has been shooting professionally ever since.
As a shooter in his own right, Bland is fearless, and will shoot almost any subject matter. Fearlessness is a quality which shouldn’t surprise anyone knowing this photographer has logged 175,000 miles of travel underwater. The areas where his photography truly excels are macro still life and product photography. His clean arrangements of merchandise showcase products in a way which are worthy of any large and glossy magazine ad or catalog. From his current location in Austin, Texas, he’s shot this type of work for creators of handmade jewelry, a glassblower, and a distillery.
Such clean, detailed, and exacting photography requires what Bland refers to as “my toolkit, not my collection. I use these things every day, and don’t have sentimental attachment to them.” By 2005, he’s owned a substantial amount of both medium and large format equipment. His medium format body is a Mamiya RZ67. Lenses for the RZ include a 65mm, a 110mm, a 140mm f/4.5 Macro, a 180mm lens, and a 250mm f/4.5 APO lens. He also uses the Polaroid Film Pack Holder.
It’s not a fluke Bland has so much invested in his Mamiya gear. “The quality was at a higher level than alternatives out there. Being an engineer who is equally right-brained, left-brained, I analyzed the cost-benefit of the quality of the images the RZ would produce,” he says. “There’s something about the images—the color depth, the 16-bit processing—right from the first images I created I knew there was a presence to those 53 megabyte files. The information is there and the wide dynamic range is outstanding.”
The massive amount of images compressed for the Web doesn’t deter Bland’s desire to shoot medium format. Images can always be reduced to small jpegs, but you can’t restore data and dynamic range once it’s been stripped out. “Not everything’s going to go on the Web,” he says. “Some day someone’s going to want that image in print. It’s really nice to be able to say to someone the native format out of the camera is a 16″x20″ image at 300ppi. It’s a nice system to work with.”
Corporate portraiture is another area Bland very much enjoys shooting, and will most likely continue to pursue, in addition to his excellent product photography. A strong believer in sharing information and community outreach, he’s a member of ASMP, PPA, the Austin PPA, and a Founding Member of the Austin Center for Photography.
With his officer’s training, Bland prides himself on delivering what clients are promised and expect. With his engineering background, he regularly embraces new technology by reading on subjects exhaustively. With his love of learning, odds are we’ll be seeing new approaches and influences on Bland’s work. When your former job was making sure things run smoothly hundreds of feet below the surface of the ocean, we can bet James Bland will have no trouble incorporating new gear and due diligence practices into his photography for his many satisfied customers.
Written by Ron Egatz