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August 2015

Life’s a Beach: inside Martin Parr’s world

In a career spanning over four decades Englishman Martin Parr has become one of the world’s best-known, most prolific and often controversial documentary photographers. His work is loved by many but has also provoked more than its fair share of criticism. In an exclusive interview he spoke to CPN writer Steve Fairclough to discuss his work with Canon digital cameras, why he has already bought the 50.6 Megapixel EOS 5DS R DSLR and why beaches remain his “laboratory”.

When CPN tracked down Martin Parr he was in Paris, having just finished the 2015 AGM of Magnum Photos – the world famous photography co-operative of which he is the current President – and was in the midst of a fashion shoot with the EOS 5DS R DSLR, but more of that later...

Photographic roots

His roots in photography lie within his family: “My grandfather was a very keen amateur photographer. When I was about 13 or 14 he lent me a camera; we went out shooting together, processed the film, made prints… so at that age I decided that that’s what I wanted to do. From the outset I’ve always photographed people. I did my first photo essay when I was 16 on Harry Ramsden’s fish and chip shop in Guiseley.”

He admits: “I knew then I wanted to be a photographer and that the way forward was to go and study photography at a college, which I did at Manchester Polytechnic. In those days those courses had a lot of theory input. You had to learn about reciprocity failure, which I was useless at. They nearly tried to throw me out because I think I failed my first year theory exam, but there was a member of staff there, called Alan Murgatroyd, who liked me and said I had potential; he persuaded the rest of the staff to keep me on [the course].”

© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

A girls’ Friday night out on the town, Bristol, England, 2009. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at a focal length of 30mm; the exposure was 1/20sec at f/2.8, ISO 800.

Partly thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Murgatroyd, and since Martin’s graduation in 1973, the photographic world has now experienced over 40 years of the world seen through the cameras and lenses of Martin Parr. This includes his black and white work – first published in ‘Bad Weather’ (1982) – and his leap into shooting in colour with the book ‘The Last Resort: Photographs of New Brighton’ (1986).

Indeed he cites ‘The Last Resort’ as his most rewarding project of his career thus far: “I think when I went from black and white to colour – ‘The Last Resort’ – that’s still one of my best known bodies of work. So, that was quite a breakthrough and it’s also probably the work that launched my career beyond the UK.”

To use a very British phrase, Martin Parr’s work is ‘like Marmite’ – people tend to either love it or hate it, but criticism is not something that hurts him. “I welcome it. I’ve always, for some reason, attracted some controversy and I never quite understand why because I don't see what’s so controversial about photographing in a supermarket or on a beach? Pretty early on in my career I realised that it did no harm. If people criticise me – I fully expect it. I get praised and criticised a fair bit, so it’s not going to stop me doing anything; I just do what I want to do really.”

The switch to digital

His leap into the digital world came: “Around 2006 or 2007... I was fully aware of digital being around; I just took the plunge and, like many other of my colleagues, once you do, you never look back.”

© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

The Grecian’s Ball, which had an Alice in Wonderland theme, Christ’s Hospital, West Sussex, England, 2010. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II at a focal length of 62mm; the exposure was 1/160sec at f/5.6, ISO 250.

Since then his digital cameras of choice have been Canon, as Martin explains: “I had to choose between Canon and Nikon and I just chose Canon because I liked the feel of it in the hand; the aerodynamics and the way it holds. It’s very intuitive to use. I’m a Canon user through and through. You could not have someone more Canon than me.” Indeed it has seen him use the all of the 5D-series DSLRs thus far: “Yes, I’ve gone all the way up – from the 5D, Mark II, Mark III and 5DS R.”

As soon as the 50.6 Megapixel EOS 5DS R hit the market in June 2015 Martin bought one, but why? “I just liked the idea of the file size. The problem now is the files are so big – I used to get 510 images on a 16GB card, now I get 190 [images on that card]. So, I’m having going to have to up my storage system probably at some point with these huge files.”

He adds: “But, of course, I make prints, which are often a metre by a metre and a half, and the [image] quality even up to now has been amazing, so now it’s going to be even better still. My main business is actually selling prints into the art market as well as doing books, and editorial and advertising and fashion… whatever else I do. I’m a very promiscuous photographer!”

Of the EOS 5DS R Martin reveals: “I used the 5DS R some weeks ago for an advertising shoot to try it out, but now I’m using it for my own work. Today I’m shooting an advertising campaign for Bon Marché on it. The client is absolutely over the moon about the size of the file they’re getting. So this is where, rather than hiring a medium format camera, this [camera] just comes into its own. So, already today, I’m doing something that may be one of the first campaigns and these will be on billboards and everywhere in Paris. This is with the one [EOS 5DS R] I bought.”

He sums up the EOS 5DS R in his usual succinct manner: “It’s exactly the same as the Mark III except the [image] files are more than double the size – that’s it in a nutshell really. Other than that, there’s virtually no difference. It’s hard to know the difference.”

Simplicity is key

Martin is not a believer in complicating photography and that’s reflected in a comparatively sparse kitbag. “It’s very small. Most of the time I have a 5D [Mark III] with a 24-70mm [zoom lens] and I have a [Speedlite] 580 [EX II] with a Gary Fong diffuser on. This is a fantastic combination. Sometimes I run two cameras – I have a [50mm] macro [lens] and a ring flash on the other.”

© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Nice, France, July 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 63mm; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/16, ISO 200.

He is also not a particularly technical photographer and likes to keep his camera settings simple. “Most of the time I put it [the camera] on Program and then, at night, I go on to T [shutter priority setting]. The great thing about digital is what you can shoot at night. I’m a great believer in combining T at low shutter speed with a flash. I’ve done a lot of pictures of dancing and discos and this is where the digital readout of what you're doing comes in so handy.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his previous answers, Martin is also not a fan of customising his cameras. He reveals: “I can’t be bothered. There’s no need! I love Program [mode]. Because I’m seeing the back [of the camera] and I’m seeing what exposure is giving me, it’s usually pretty spot on. People shoot on manual – I couldn’t be bothered to do that! There’s no point – it’s all done for you.”

He does, however, enjoy playing with ISO values: “All the time I’m flipping it around. When I go into a disco, or in a nightclub, or a party I’m determining what ISO is going to be best for me and adjusting it accordingly is reading out of the camera back, together with the flash and making sure that the ambient light is kept so you feel the atmosphere of what the place is like but using flash at the same time.”

He admits he pushes ISO: “Up to 2500 sometimes. My favourite ISO at night would be 800 to 1000.” But on a beach? “Then I’d be on [ISO] 125 or something. It’s pretty bright.” Also, he remains a devotee of composing through the viewfinder of his cameras: “Oh, yes. I’m a great believer in that.”

Workflow and printing

© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Nice, France, July 2015. Taken on a Canon EOS 5DS R with an EF50mm f/2.5 Macro lens; the exposure was 1/200sec at f/13, ISO 160.

Of his workflow Martin reveals: “I shoot RAW and I’ve never processed a [digital] file in my life! I have a great team that do it all for me. I make an edit and then we produce, rather surprisingly, for every high-res file… we do a 10x8 [inch] print of the images I’ve edited. I then make the secondary edit, which determines what goes on the Magnum website, from a print rather than from a picture on a screen. I’ve built up an archive of 400,000 or 500,000 digital images since I’ve shot digital.”

In his London studio he has a team of: “Two-and-a-half and a potential intern. I do the editing; they just process the file and send the files off. I mean, I make C [type] prints… we send them off to a lab one day and they come back the following day – they cost about 50p for a 10x8 [inch print]. It’s the sort of company that wedding photographers use, but the prints are fantastic.”

When quizzed about what his studio printer he laughs and admits: “I don't know!” In fact, Martin has a 44-inch Canon ImagePROGRAF iPF8300 large format printer in his London studio and he opines: “The quality is great and it’s consistently faster than the printer we were using before. It’s a very good printer – we really put it through its paces because of the quantity of prints it produces. I have exhibitions all around the world and they’re all produced in London, in my studio, and are then sent out. We’ve done seven acres of prints – it’s virtually on all the time and the quality is fantastic so we’re big believers in the products Canon makes.”

Pop-up studios and the beach ‘laboratory’

The recent activities of Martin Parr also saw him running a pop-up studio in Nice, France, which was operating and open to the public during the second week of July 2015. Dubbed ‘Promenade(s) Des Anglais’ it was a ‘real-time’ photo project that saw Martin and his London studio team relocating to the south of France and based in the Artists’ Room of the Théâtre de la Photographie et de l’Image in Nice.

© Canon Europe

Please click on the image above to view an exclusive film on Martin Parr’s recent ‘Pop-up’ studio in Nice, France, where he used the EOS 5DS R and imagePROGRAF large format printers.

Martin reveals: “It’s something I’ve done before whereby my whole studio comes down and they set the printers up. I go out shooting at quite a lick and then come back, say twice a day, to the studio; download, edit and the things are printed up literally the same day that they’re taken. So, at the end you had this complete new exhibition about Nice. To complement that my other exhibition, ‘Life’s a Beach’, was on at Nice at the same time. It also included some Nice beach pictures.”

The prints for the Nice ‘revolving exhibition’ were made using two Canon 44-inch imagePROGRAF iPF8400 large format printers and at the closing exhibition of the pop-up studio many of the subjects featured in the images were invited and given small prints of the pictures they were in. Martin explains: “This whole concept of showing the work back to the subjects and to the people of the town or place where the photos are taken is an element I am trying to build into my repertoire. This strategy appears to work very well, as people are always intrigued to see how a foreign photographer views their home territory. Many of the people who attend such projects have never visited an art or photography gallery at all.”

The Nice pop-up studio project was just the latest in Martin’s ongoing, 30-year plus, love affair with documenting beach life in his observational style, which is often characterised by the saturated colours in his images. In the past he has described the beach as being his “laboratory” and that still holds true… “The beach has been the place where I‘ve experimented with my new ideas as we go along – so, absolutely, yes [it’s still my laboratory]. Now I’ve been experimenting with the telephoto [zoom lens], because in the art world with the exception of a few people, the telephoto is scorned upon. So, I’m now experimenting using the beach to see what’s possible by shooting with a telephoto [lens].”

So, what telephoto lens is he using? “I think it’s a 70-300mm. You have to remember I’m not actually interested in equipment (laughs). But it’s an amazingly sharp lens – it’s fantastic! I’m very happy to be served by a good camera but my interest is only in taking the pictures.” In fact, the lens Martin is referring to is the EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM zoom.

In addition to the pop-up studio in Nice Martin also had his work shown elsewhere in France recently with the installation – in collaboration with French musician Matthieu Chadid (aka ‘M’) – ‘MMM’ (for ‘M Meets Martin’), which was one of the key attractions at the 2015 Recontres d’Arles international photo festival.

Future projects

As for his next big projects, he reveals: “Next February [2016] I’ve got two big shows in the UK – one in the Guildhall [in London] and one in The Hepworth in Wakefield. This is new work – I’ve done a whole thing about rhubarb for The Hepworth. The ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ (a concentrated area of the English county of Yorkshire in which early forced rhubarb is cultivated) is near to Wakefield so I photographed that last winter – it will be shown along with a wide selection of my own work. The Guildhall will show pictures I’ve done about the City of London and all the traditions within that [that are] hidden away, behind the surface.”

Despite having a 40-year plus career does Martin still have any ambitions he hasn't fulfilled yet? He laughs out loudly down the ‘phone line and replies: “My ambition is to keep going as long as I can really, while I’ve still got my mind and two legs that I can walk [with]. I’ve never been at a loss for subject matter – there’s so much to photograph in this crazy world that we live in.”

Martin Parr’s kitbag


EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM
EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM

Speedlite 580EX II flashgun
Macro Ring Lite MR-14EX II
Gary Fong flash diffuser


  • 50.6 Megapixel full-frame CMOS sensor with ISO 100-6400 (Lo: 50 and H1: 12,800) sensitivity range.
  • Low-pass cancellation filter for maximum sensor resolution.
  • Dual DIGIC 6 processors for outstanding image processing speed and camera responsiveness.
  • 5 frames per second (fps) with selectable burst speeds and silent shutter mode.
  • 61-point wide area AF with 41 cross-type sensors with iTR, AI Servo AF III and AF Configuration tool.
  • 150k pixel RGB+IR metering sensor.
  • 100% magnification Intelligent Viewfinder II with electronic overlay.
  • 1.3x, 1.6x and 1:1 ratio crop modes with masked viewfinder display.
  • Mirror Vibration Control System to reduce mirror vibration blur.
  • Fine Detail Picture Style.
  • CF + SD (UHS-I) dual memory card slots.
  • Peripheral Illumination and Chromatic Aberration Lens Correction in-camera.
  • Multiple Exposure and HDR mode.
  • Customisable Quick Control screen.
  • Built-in timer functionality – bulb timer and interval shooting timer.
  • Time-lapse Movie function.
  • Super Speed USB 3.0 for high-speed tethering and image/movie transfer.
  • 150,000 shutter cycle life.
  • Compatible with most EOS 5D Mark III accessories (note: the WFT-E7 requires new USB cables and firmware updated).

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Biografie: Martin Parr

Martin Parr

Martin Parr was born in England in 1952 and studied photography at Manchester Polytechnic from 1970 to 1973. In a career spanning over 40 years he has developed an international reputation for his innovative imagery, his oblique approach to social documentary and his input to photographic culture. In 1994 he became a full member of Magnum Photos. In 2002 the Barbican Art Gallery and the National Media Museum initiated a large retrospective of his work, which toured Europe for five years and the show ‘Parrworld’ – including his collections of photography and photo books – toured Europe from 2008 to 2010. To date he has published over 80 books of his own work and edited another 30.


Knokke, Belgium, 2001.