If you had to describe your overall photographic vision in 25 words or less, what words would you choose?
I attempt to create classic b+w imagery honoring the tradition of Adams and Weston et al, technically oriented, but hopefully work that will ultimately transport the viewer. or, ideally, leave them feeling “pensive.”
Why are you so drawn to long exposure photography?
Long exposure (LE) photography initially was so appealing to me in that it provided such a potential for mystery in the image. It’s simply a lengthening of the exposure time but (1) you never quite know what you’re going to get, (2) anything moving becomes blurred to different extents depending on it’s motion and pattern and your choice of exposure times which invariably produces ethereal results, and (3) there’s a sense of timelessness that the technique expresses. The cameras 100 years ago were slow photography machines which always made an LE. Portrait subjects often had props to lean against and that’s why sometimes their eyes look ghostly because they blinked or looked to the side during the capture. Rivers and seascapes almost always had the misty quality that LE’s yield, so when I see the image that came out of the camera after making an LE it’s immediately transporting and inspiring. It’s a way to see differently in contrast to a regular shutter speed, which is more the documentation of a moment vs the LE as more of a sum of the total of what happened over time. There’s one more thing– and I’m sure there is no science here to back this up– but it always seems that the photograph made using an LE is more beautiful and dimensional and natural and more pleasant to look at even before developing vs the same exposure using a normal quick shutter … I feel like that because the light photons take more time to gradually accumulate on the sensor that the result is just more natural feeling /vs cold and precise. Also the B+W filter that I use is warm and that’s nice. Every filter will have a color cast even if they say “neutral”; some are warmer (B+W) and some cooler (Lee)– and obviously raw color temp values can always be adjusted after the fact. I just like that warmer feel these days. In the end, the LE has become such an essential component of my photography that it’s the way I see and the language that I speak when I make a landscape or seascape.
Why do you prefer black and white photography?
The conversion to making mostly Black and white photography (pardon the pun!), came almost simultaneously with my first forays into making LE’s. First of all, the imagery that I was seeing that was inspiring me at that time was black and white, and then I quickly deduced that that was perhaps at least partly due to the strong color casts that the black glass filters are making. But, as I alluded to earlier in reference to the timelessness feeling of LE’s, part of that feeling directly transcribes to black and white. LE’s are, in a way, the stripping away of elements, as one blurs the details and minimizes the visual components in a way that black and white perfectly compliments. Areas of soft gradients that long exposures are often full of can be represented in grays so subtly and beautifully and my ultimate goal is to make an image that will not only look good on a screen but will also print well. And there are some amazing combinations of black and white workflow software and papers that can result in a very real presentation of a photographic art. I still love me some color now and again, especially summer sunrises on warm beautiful mornings, but for the most part my portfolio has become almost entirely shades of gray.
Who are three of your favorite photographers, and, more importantly, how has your appreciation of their work affected how you approach your own photography?
Ansel Adams will always be my first photographic hero. After him, there are a bunch, but I’ll mention Edward Weston, and Gursky, but I would be remiss to not also name Michael Kenna and even Joel Myerowitz. From initially seeing Ansel’s images back in high school and since, I experienced the visual power of visceral detail and amazing sharpness and the power of a vast landscape. Weston’s “Pepper #26” has haunted me ever since I first saw it, just so amazing and seductive, and the more I learn about him the better I like him. Gursky proved to me the million dollar value of a minimalistic landscape, so that’s a pipe dream I like to entertain! Michael Kenna has such an emotive and dark style that I find totally compelling and his long exposure work is absolutely top-notch. And Joel Myerowitz’s book Cape Light worked on me as a talisman of sorts because I grew up on Cape Cod, Massachussetts and would compare his large format camera imagery with the actual place and that taught me about an artists vision. But there are so many more: mostly contemporaries who I follow on the interwebs such as yourself and Steve-Maxx Landeros, and Joel Tjintjelaar and Olivier Du Tre, Eric Fredine, and Julia Anna Gospodarou, and on and on. After a while, I should try and stop looking because everyone’s work is completely amazing and takes my breath away! There are so many amazing photographers now– which is awesome.
What artistic influences, outside of photography, have had a significant influence on how you approach your photography (for example, painters, filmmakers, musicians, poets, etc.)? .
Sweet Question! Yeah- I’ve always been in to technically oriented pursuits: when I was a kid (9 years old) living outside of Boston MA., I found Van Halen’s self-titled album from 1981– and the Eddie Van Halen solo “Eruption“– and I went out and secretly bought an electric guitar with the earnings from shoveling driveways and mowing lawns. I kept the guitar at my friends house because my parents wouldn’t let me have an electric guitar and instead had me taking acoustic guitar lessons, which I hated. The lessons were horrible! But my friend Eddie Bauman and I would sit there and figure out how to play the rock song riffs and then watch Dire Straights and etc videos on the VCR. Finally, my folks figured out what was going on and let me bring my “axe” home and got me a cool little Peavey practice amp for Christmas that year. I ultimately ended up going to the Berklee College of Music in Boston in the early 90’s to pursue musicianship, particularly Jazz composition and arranging, which I’ve since moved on from, which is somewhat regretful, but I focus 100 percent on what I’m doing now and can’t just do a thing part time. Alas and anyways… before that then though there was windsurfing on Cape Cod and learning to do jumps and barrel rolls and half loops and other tricks and then the sport lacrosse with it’s backhands and underhands and over-the-shoulder hockey-in-the-air moves. Then I was on to flipping shrimp in a pan as a restaurant sous chef and wielding a nail gun on a roof as a carpenter and spinning a blow pipe with molten glass on the end in the shape of a beer mug with spun reticelo cane in it as a glassblower, which I still do now– and not only beer mugs but also vases and tableware etc. All of these pursuits are examples of that fascination with technique. Technique has always been my thing. Therefore, photography was a shoe-in for me to pursue as there will be a never ending bell curve of possibilities ahead as well as new things to discover and ways to express myself by using technique and imagination. The bottom line is the technique; if there is a lot to learn and it’s a challenging pursuit, then I’ll most likely find it enthralling!
What are your thoughts about trying to find the best gear possible versus working on making the best possible image with the gear you already have?
I do believe in good gear to a point. I used to shoot on an instamatic 110 camera when I was a kid and took pictures of chipmunks and bushes and trees by the roadside, which sucked. But I love the pictures I made of my first dog: “Shadow”.Then there was the 850 dollar 3 mp Olympus point-and-shoot which was my first digital camera that I got in the year 2000, one that I loved and made a bunch of photography with until I regretfully dropped it off a dock at 04:00 in the morning. Then there was my first dslr which was a Canon Rebel 350 with kit 18-55 ( which was a horribly hideous lens but learning to use a dslr was the best thing ever- because I could focus and meter completely separately without having to go into menus to do so! ). When I realized that I really wanted to take my photography to the next level I started lusting for the full frame to shoot proper wide landscapes and have what would be called a “pro quality” kit. That took inheriting a boat and then selling my share of it to achieve getting one, but once I did I’m perfectly and amazingly happy with it. I would take it to bed with me everyday if I didn’t worry about getting it unnecessarily dusty or knocking it onto the floor in my sleep. Sure the 5D MKIII is better, but I don’t need it. Sure a crop of the D800 is as good as anything I can properly shoot on my 5D II and a PhaseOne or a Hasselblad would put us all to shame, but I’m honestly perfectly happy with my camera. I’ve actually thought on this a fair amount recently considering how much I’ve been using my iPhone4 cam and also thinking about what if my real kit ever got stolen or ruined- and I honestly believe that any imaging device could fascinate me and inspire me to produce on it even if it was an office copy machine. This just kind of negates my previous statement regarding my love for my quality kit, but, in the end: isn’t it just about the process of making the thing- so, like, can’t we be amused by whatever it may be that allows us to image something? As far as the iPhone4 goes- it’s pretty good but it’s nasty noisy in low light, which is the only good light in this guy’s opinion- so there you go: ya, I need an awesome full frame large sensor large megapixel cell phone that will fit in my pocket. So– yes– gear is important!
How would you define fine art? Is it just a label?
Yes it’s definitely a label because it’s a thing. Fine art would seem to be: something that was created with intent in some way shape or form which is recognized and regarded highly as a thing of value, as ornamentation, ideally by the right people, who are ideally people with lots of money.
If you had to come up with one very important lesson that you think every photographer needs to learn, what would it be?
Study composition. Look at the masters works and see how they are choosing to balance the elements of a scene. A long time ago you had to go to libraries and book stores to see excellent examples of photography, these days it’s all right here on the internet. You just have to learn how to speak the language- and that’s the very beginning of a very long journey that is to be a photographer.
What are your thoughts about the benefits of online sharing? Are there any particular social media or image sharing sites you prefer or do not prefer?
As far as online sharing goes, it’s one of those double edged swords sometimes: both a vice and a virtue. It’s undoubtedly important to ‘learn the language’ when you’re coming up as a photographer, to get a handle on what it is that people do with these camera things. Initially, when I hopped online with my imagery, I had the desire to be part of a photo-like club. I wanted to share my images with people who would engage me in an honest and open feedback loop of critique and praise. What I ended up finding though is that 99 percent of the time it’s all of the latter and very seldom any of the former. Because my art is photography, the whole point is to show my vision– and in that regard I have been successful in finding something of an audience and the sense of appreciation for my work, but in order to grow and not just stagnate and repeat oneself there needs to be questioning and a challenge and something of a sense of an occasional agitation in your mind to shake things up occasionally and try to see things new. And it seems to me that constant reassurance and kudos and pats on the back do not encourage discovery. So, this is where the online world of Flickr and G+ and Facebook and 500px seem to fail. It really drives me nuts (don’t want to get all negative here but now’s the time for saying this) when a commenter on an image I made and I am proud of praises the photograph with the transparent motive of having me go to theirs and do the same. Not to say that I’ve never been guilty of, after discovering said phenomena, practicing the same– but it was only for a few moments then I snapped out of it! The only reason I will comment on a picture is because I’m moved out of my viewing moment to do so. Even if it’s only a “that’s a wicked nice one” or whatever, I want the photographer to know that the image that I just saw really hit the spot! I used to try to occasionally add a brief one sentence critique in there sometimes (couched between two affirmatives) regarding missing a dust spot or a bit of an unintentional horizon tilt or whatever but the “overly smiling-through-talking-teeth” nature of the sharing Internet has put me off that. Unless clearly asked for there is rarely room for a good critique. So that’s a bummer for me. Also I have really been on a real diet of imagery viewing for the last 9 months or so. Only occasionally will I pop into the sharing places that I post to in order to have a deep drink of imagery. And the reason for that is that I know that when I go there I will see knock-my-socks-off awesome and incredible photographs by all of you guys who might be reading this. I would bet my horse on that any one of you would save the day with an amazing photograph when called on. And that is not what I need right now! I need to think about my images and what I want to burn onto my sensor the next time I go out. I need to stick to my current opinion as to how much whites do I want in my prints or how much contrast. So it’s not to say that I’m practicing a celibacy of sorts; it’s just that I know what I want to do and I don’t want to risk being distracted by your vision.
One more thing … I sell imagery. I don’t hardly sell enough though so my Internet presence is a valuable commodity that needs maintenance and participation. It’s a fine balance in the end and I do love my Petapixel, but ultimately it’s the goose’s golden egg that we all have the opportunity to reach millions around the world with our photography, no matter what you do with it.
What photographic cliché or common photography question, if any, irritates you the most? I am, once again, most interested in the why.
Nice one! I love this question! “Has that been photoshopped?” or “I never Photoshop my pictures!?” In the spirit of that last one– I actually heard a vendor at an outdoor art sale describing her photography to a potential buyer. Oh my word– the general public needs more education about this– or maybe that person is not the buyer we need to be spending our energy on. That question feels as ridiculous to me as “do I make all of my own clothes, or do I buy them?” Actually, I guess that was a bad example; I just mean that I guess it’s not as obvious an answer to the question that I would hope it would be. If the image you’re looking at seems to have some personality, then I would hope that the artist who created it had a say in the work instead of taking whatever they may get. So that is Photoshop to me, or Lightroom or Aperture, or Gimp, or Corel Paintshop or whatever it’s called now– developing the image myself gives me the opportunity to further inject my vision into the scene–the choices I make in how to show the picture are the tools I use to voice my style. If someone ever asks me if I Photoshopped my prints I would just say that “yes, I do do my own developing”.
If you were stranded on an island, and you could have one camera, one lens, one filter, one tripod, two books, and ten CDs, what would they be and why?
Well I’ve thought on this one before and if it’s a stranding that we’re talking about that would seemingly limit our ability to either get a proper Mac or get our film developed, not to mention charge batteries etc. So if it’s a real stranding then I would have to go with a Polaroid Instant Camera with a normal lens so I could actually enjoy the pictures. If it’s a fantasy stranding that allows me to actually develop my digital images and recharge my batteries then I’d go with the yet to be released Canon 3D medium format DSLR with equally fantasy 18-200mm f/2.0 Tilt-Shift lens! Of course I would bring a 10 stop B+W nd, and since it’s a fantasy I’d upgrade my legs to some nice Really Right Stuff carbon fiber sticks (note: I have since the writing of this upgraded to Gitzo). As far as the books- that’s a tough one, books are so important and I love them and I wish there was more time to enjoy them, as there would be on a desert island stranding- so here I would take a big risk and say that the one book that I would bring is the Bible– which would surprise me but a stranding would be the perfect opportunity to appreciate it even though I’m not a very religious person. I’ve only read parts but not the whole thing, and lots of people seem to like it. Then I would bring the most massive and beautiful encyclopedia that they make, cause I like to learn, and it may come in handy out there as well. As far as the music- another tough one, but I imagine that a good choice would be The Complete Columbia Miles Davis Album set (even though it’s 52 albums!), a choice that should really do the trick! Now here’s an interesting aside: I do live on a desert island, it’s called Mount Desert Island in Maine. I don’t have it all to myself but have learned to cope in a way as if I were stranded and have come to love it!
Are there any specific directions that you would like to take your photography in the future or any specific goals that you wish to achieve?
I definitely want to try to travel and photograph more- ideally once a year or so, but realistically a road trip will do as well. There’s nothing like getting away to sharpen your eyes. Also, someday I want to try to get into home studio still lifes or something like that where I can really control the capture with extreme precision and have hours to do so.
Is there any specific place that you would like to visit to take photos?
Iceland! I must go to Iceland! And most certainly I do intend to go there this year. In fact, it is on my list of must do things this year; the best photographic upgrade possible is going to some downright amazing locations to make photography. And Iceland I think would compliment my portfolio versus confuse it in that I feel like the landscape there is possibly akin to the Maine coast on Steroids.
Nate Deconstructs “Eagle Lake Driftwood”
The adage “my favorite photograph is the one I’ll make tomorrow” (Imogen Cunningham) is a prescient sentiment; my favorite images are my most recent or the ones I’m working on currently. Not to say that I regret my catalog or body of work, or that I’m doing things very differently now compared to a couple years ago, maybe it’s just the familiarity or intent I feel for my recent work. This one “Eagle Lake Driftwood” is definitely one of my favorites from this year (2013). Made it in late May on a beautifully foggy Sunday morning. Fog is my favorite kind of weather for photography, not the blowing mist type of fog that soaks the front elements of lenses but the cinematic kind that lends itself so well to minimalist and contemplative imagery. One of the big reasons that I love long exposure is that the technique helps eliminate distracting busy textures in water and sky, and combined with fog it can really strip a scene to it’s most elemental level. I had this location in mind for some long exposure images for more than a year before arriving there that morning. Initially the goal was to find compositions by focusing on a trail of stones leading out into the lake from this small cove. I felt satisfied with the work up until this chunk of driftwood caught my attention. Another great thing about practicing a long exposure workflow is that while the shutter is open you can take that time to observe your environment (particularly behind you, the photographer’s nemesis and always mocking bedfellow) and find other composition fodder. Also, while the shutter is open and all you have to do is wait, you may find it rewarding to just enjoy being there and experiencing the things that the camera can distract you from. Anyways, where was I? Right … so the driftwood … I immediately was charmed by it and set about trying to arrange it in a way that would best show it’s character and balance itself with the environment: both figuratively and literally. I was a half an hour at it– at least trying one profile and then another pose– but then having to prop it with stones as a foundation to stay put etc. Ultimately I think this was the most attractive position: lounging like on a settee with legs gracefully crossed yet engaging and attentive.
As for the tech stuff, I captured it with a Canon 5D mkII using a 17-40 f/4 ultra wide zoom at 17mm (which I sometimes try to avoid as 17 can be just too wide and unnatural if you’re not careful, that and if there is a hard horizon then the mustache distortion can be a killer). Settings were f/8 for max sharpness, 70 seconds for long exposure delightfulness, and iso 200 because the native 100 ISO was not necessary- 70 was enough, 140 would be the same, and I was trying many different poses. The B+W nd110 was on, I was locked off on Manfrotto legs, using a Canon shutter release cable. I checked focus using live view and shot from live view with the flip up the mirror for sharpness. That’s the thing– even though the fog and the long exposure takes away and mutes so many details, I still want visceral sharpness somewhere, wherever it may be that is important. Also- I had the place entirely to myself and heard no one but the loons, which is also awesome about the fog! As far as the development in post, I followed my standard workflow for black and white landscape. First, I made normalizing tweaks in Lr4 (at that time) including exposure, contrast, blacks and whites (but not too much because fog actually doesn’t have really any true blacks or whites), a dab of clarity, and a touch of sharpening because even though you should sharpen for output I can’t see the image properly unless it looks normal and 25 percent sharpening on a 17-40 f/4 is not normal for me; then I made a spot removal first pass with the spot brush in Lightroom (ultimately I’ll check the final file in Photoshop using the heal brush to find any other minuscule spots or loud pixels). Then I sent the file to Nik Silver Efex (original version, only recently have begun using SE2) and would have probably have started with the Neutral Preset and added a touch of contrast and a touch of structure and probably and orange or green filter or so and then saved it back to Lightroom. Lastly, in Photoshop one of my favorite things is to use the gradient tool on it’s own layer in circular gradient mode, inverted, at low amount, and then drag a vignette into different areas of the image. It’s a really cool way to dodge and burn because depending on the length of your stroke, it makes a larger area adjustment and depending on starting with top to bottom or bottom or top, it’ll give you different looks. I’ll make an adjustment layer of curves on top of that if need be and maybe even use the dodging and burning brushes to coax out more changes (the Photoshop dodge and burn brushes have the added option of only affecting highlights, midtones, or shadows vs Lightroom where it’s a little more of a sledgehammer of a tool.) Finally, I took it back to Lightroom for a 4×5 cropping because I prefer to present my imagery like I would be printing it and I like to print 5×4.
A Few More Thoughts About Workflow
Now regarding my post capture workflow- everybody has a different way to develop their picture. Which is good! I have tried in vain to learn some of the more elaborate methods out there like Joel’s Selective Gradient Masks or Tony Kuyper’s Luminosity Masks, but I don’t want to spend 50 to 100 hours developing an image. I want to spend a few hours at most, and maybe a few days of letting it sink in- not to say one way is better or worse than the other: ultimately, let’s all be friends! But, I do know that I have a specific way that I want my images to look. I have strong opinions about how much is enough contrast or how much is too much. And that becomes one’s style as much as anything else. After more than a dozen years of making digital photography, my tastes have changed more than a few times regarding looks and developing techniques. These days I feel like going a little less contrasty, but still having a fair amount of blacks, I want to add sharpening less and use my primes more. And the real trick is printing lots of your own photographs. There is something about holding a print in your hand and looking at it closely that will reveal all the defects and overwrought nuances that the screen just can’t show you. My ultimate goal is to shoot and develop for a great print, and who knows, a durable archival print may be the most dependable way of backing up your photographs, what with solar flares and all!
So that’s that. Photography to me is a passion that I can and will pursue unto my own volition for the rest of my life– and not to win any contests or make lots of money or a reputation or anything else. It’s something that I can do as an avenue of creation that I have complete control over from start to finish. And it’s still a great way to capture memories and loved one’s faces and your doggy. Everybody wants to be a photographer probably because everybody is so grateful that it exists! Enough of me- go make some pictures, people!
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