Burning Questions II: Where, When, & How
Yesterday I asked the people who follow my work on my Facebook page what they would like to ask me if they could ask me anything. Yesterday, I answered a few of the questions in a journal entry. But I got a lot of great questions, so here's another entry to answer some more questions.
How old were you when you started photographing? Did you always want to be a landscape photographer?
This is a tough question to answer. I was given a Kodak Instamatic when I was about 9 years old, and had a lot of fun taking photos around my house. Blew through a lot of 126 film (remember that?) and flash bars. But at some point the novelty grew old and the poor quality left me disinterested. I had a point and shoot camera through high school, but it wasn't until my third year of college that I took my first photo classes. My first "real" camera was a Pentax ME Super with a zoom lens, probably a 35-80mm lens. My first thought, naive as it was, was that the zoom lens would allow me to photograph sports. Not quite, but it got me started. I began my career photographing sports for newspapers and then for Pacific Trading Cards (sample at left). They no longer exist as they were, purchased by another company in 2004, which is about when I decided to change my career path.
After that chapter ended in the early 2000s, I began photographing landscapes more, but mostly for my own enjoyment. I enjoyed it, and became better every day, so it's just progressed from there naturally.
How much time do you spend scouting locations and planning your itinerary?
Planning is an ongoing thing for me. My frequent photo and travel partner Kristen Wilkinson began a map on Google Maps with pinned locations she wanted to photograph. When we began working together, I also began contributing to it. You can see the map above showing the North American locations. We belong to a lot of landscape photography groups so whenever we see a photo of a location we want to photograph, we mark it down. If one of us is driving and see an interesting spot, we'll put it on the map. We'll also use Google Maps to scout an area remotely to see what might be there. Google Street View is helpful for this as well. There are also apps such as Explorest that will list photo opportunities in locations nearby.
Once in an area, we'll spend time during the midday, when the light is at its harshest and least photogenic, just exploring. We'll pick an area and look for interesting scenes. We'll also double check any spots on the map that are nearby, just to be sure it is what we thought it was.
The planning and marking of spots is constant. Once we have plans booked, the planning and remote scouting gets kicked into high gear until we're actually in the area we plan to be working in.
What is the longest you have waited to get a perfect shot?
If I'm just photographing a sunrise or sunset, it's usually not very long. Since I know when sunrise or sunset will be, I can arrive in plenty of time but not too early. I suppose the longest I waited for an actual photo is something like these star trails shots above and below this paragraph. The top image, "Night School" is the culmination of over two hours' worth of 30-second exposures, to capture the movement of stars through the sky.
"Magic Bus" was the result of over an hour and a half of exposures. My friend Amanda Stevens showed me this spot so we set up our cameras and then spent the next two hours chatting in the car staying warm before ending one series of exposures, recomposing, and starting another. These types of shots need to be planned out, and then you just wait around while the camera makes the exposures. It's a bit different than taking a sunset where you're actively photographing every minute or so, looking for new compositions, or hiking to a spot. It can be agonizing to start a series like this and just wait while the camera does its thing.
What were the most extreme weather conditions that you ever ventured out in to capture a perfect shot?
2018 was a banner year for extreme weather for me. I don't chase storms- at least I haven't yet- so you won't see many tornado or hurricane shots from me. But in January 2018 Maine got hit with a vicious polar vortex that kept temperatures in the single digits, if not negative numbers, for weeks. The image below, "Deep Freeze at Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse" was taken on January 1, 2018. The temperatures that morning were -14ºF, with a wind chill of -24ºF.
The air physically hurt any exposed skin. I was dressed in so many layers I could barely move, and my face was so covered that I had no peripheral vision. I had hand and foot warmers in my gloves and boots. I had three layers of pants, and four layers of thermal shirts. It was an effort just to walk. My wife's hair froze due to the condensation of her breath around her face. Her scarf had so much frost from her breath, it looked like someone smashed a snowball in her face! It was brutal, but the photos from that day were amazing. To see the bay actually STEAMING due to the water being warmer than the air was something I'll never forget.
The image below "Deep Freeze" was taken at Marshall Point about a week later. It was slightly warmer that day, about -4ºF with a -16º wind chill. It hasn't gotten that cold during the winter here in Maine since.
Another extreme weather situation was in the fall of 2019. I was teaching a workshop in Acadia National Park and a nor'easter passed overnight. It had the Atlantic Ocean churning more angrily than I've ever seen. We were able to make our way to Boulder Beach and get a view of Otter Cliff, where I saw waves scaling the cliff. To give you an idea, that cliff is 108 feet tall. The waves are easily clearing the top of the cliff. It was like watching a fireworks show. I was partly terrified that a stronger wave would come out of nowhere and sweep me away, and partly awestruck at the power of the ocean.
What was your scariest photo excursion?
In 2013, I visited the Oregon Coast for the first time. I had seen photos and read stories about Thor's Well, a collapsed sea cave on Cape Perpetua. When the tide is high, waves will wash into the cave and then out the top, and if they wash in with force, they explode out the top, before the water recedes back into the hole. I arrived in time for sunset that day. It was incredibly windy there, with gusts in the 30mph range. The tide was coming in, near high tide, and the Pacific Ocean was really pounding the coastline. Thor's Well was putting on a spectacular show. Spray was everywhere and I was constantly wiping my camera down. There is a perch near the well you can stand on to make your photos. While I stood on that perch, the ocean swirled around me. I was deathly afraid that a bigger wave would come knock me over. I had a plan if that happened, but hey, you never know.
There's a cool video here to see more about Thor's Well.
What time of day do you find is best for capturing great images, like your water views?
Really any time of day will work, given the proper conditions, but I find the best is early morning and late afternoon or early evening. Generally, an hour before and after sunrise, and an hour before and after sunset. The light is low and angular, and casts long shadows. Those shadows add a lot of interest and definition to a scene, creating depth. A photographer friend of mine likes to say that "Light reveals and shadow defines". You need both to make a great photo.
Do you ever find yourself in a slump, photographically?
It happens more than you would think. I get wanderlust quite a bit, and as much as I love Maine, familiarity breeds contempt sometimes. So when I'm at home, it's sometimes difficult to get motivated to go out and photograph places I've been to before. Most often this happens during the winter, when either there's no snow, or we haven't had a fresh snow in a while. The landscape tends to be covered in leafless trees, mud or brown grass, and just tends to be unexciting visually.
To break a slump, sometimes I can force myself out anyway and I'll usually find something worth photographing, or I'll plan a trip someplace with a more inspiring landscape at that time of year. It helps to quell the wanderlust too!
Thanks again for all of the great questions! I got a bunch of them, so there will be a few more journal entries answering them!