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Landscape photography interview: Progresso Fotografico

I recently had the opportunity to be part of the latest issue of Italian photography magazine Progresso Fotografico, titled 'Landscape Photography Goals'. I was able to give some in-depth answers to fantastic questions about my photographic processes, from in-field capture to post-processing, as well as my relationship with nature and several other great topics. You can grab the original issue from their site, or read along in English below. I hope you enjoy the interview!

Dramatic sunrise seascape on Australian south coast

When, where and why did your passion for photography begin? How have these years of fervent technological evolution passed through your work?

My whole life growing up, and still to this day, I have been an artist at heart. My primary outlets for this before photography was drawing and painting, which I still continued to pour lots of time into during my school years during my studies of Visual Arts. However in 2013, when I was in early high school, I picked up my dad’s old Nikon D70 and started to play around with it, which very quickly grew to a creative obsession. I spent a couple of years messing around with different subjects and techniques, but after 2015 where my family holidayed to both Tasmania and New Zealand, as well as regularly visiting my grandparents in the Blue Mountains of Australia, I fell in love with landscape and nature photography.

I was actually very limited with my technology and gear for some years, being a low-earning high school student for 5 of my formative years of photography, which meant I couldn’t upgrade to all the latest camera models and lenses. While this in one sense was a hindrance, it also caused my focus to be entirely on creating visually compelling images, rather than getting bogged down in the details and technology. I stuck with my basics and figured things out as I went, which meant I developed my own way of seeing things and creating images that really speak to me. I of course now am shooting with better gear, but those formative years where I was forced to figure things out for myself I believe was beneficial, in a way.

What do you want to express, transmit or represent through your images and your style?

I personally am a Christian and believer in God. I see declarations of His divinity all around me in the natural world. Because of my beliefs, I aim to photograph the glory of God that is revealed within nature in all different ways. There is extreme beauty and wonder wherever you look - the way light refracts off rippling water in a spring stream; the way the sunrise silhouettes a jagged mountain peak; the way moss hangs from an ancient tree in an anonymous forest; the way a storm cloud ravages a valley beneath.

When I compose and capture an image, and then subsequently edit it, I aim to have a clear subject which is meant to be what is admired, and all other elements compliment it. My goal when it comes to editing is to not necessarily reproduce or document reality (because really, who decides what is reality when it comes to photography?) but rather to convey a sense of awe, wonder, peace, tranquility, curiosity or any other vast array of emotions through the image.

Aurora Australis, Milky Way, Zodiacal Light and bioluminescence at Lion Rock in Tasmania

Do you look for certain light and conditions when photographing or do you always prefer to change perspectives and environments?

I love to both explore new places and return to familiar ones. The best, and only way, to try and get good conditions and light at a particular place is to keep returning until it happens. Returning to a place also means you can find new and interesting compositions, and really get to know the location. I believe that forming that connection is a really important part of landscape photography, because when you feel a relationship with a place it is revealed in the quality and range of images you take, rather than just visiting for a ‘trophy shot’ to never return. That being said, exploring new places is one of the best things you can do. If you never get out there and explore, then you may not be able to find such places to form a connection with. 

Where do you usually get your inspiration from?

I get my inspiration from both other photographers and the places I explore. There are a great many photographers out there that I admire and whose work really speaks to me whenever I view it. There is quite a range in the styles of the photographs that inspire me too, from wide and dramatic scenes to intimate and abstract scenes. Some examples of these photographers would be the likes of Ted Gore, Erin Babnik, Enrico Fossati, TJ Thorne, Guy Tal and Alex Noriega. All of these people are masters of their craft, and I draw lots of inspiration from the way they compose and edit their images.

As I said before however, I also draw lots of inspiration from immersing myself in nature. Witnessing an epic sunrise, dramatic atmosphere or a crystal clear night sky never fails to get me excited about photography. In the past year or so I have also opened myself up to close up details, not only wide and epic images. In doing this I am always amazed at how much beauty nature has even in the smallest details that are easy to pass over.

What was, for you, the most difficult skill to be achieved in the list of the abilities required by shooting landscapes?

One of the mistakes I used to very commonly make was not checking my camera's histogram, and accidentally creating files that were far more underexposed than I realised. This would be frustrating when I would go to edit the image, as I would lose detail in the shadows and create noise by having to bring up the exposure.

Another common mistake of mine that was less because of difficulty, and more because of laziness, was focusing. I almost always shoot in manual focus, and sometimes I would not properly focus stack and make sure my subjects were sharp. This meant some of my favourite images are almost sharp, but not quite. Although I do not see this as a reason to not publish the photos, it does bug me a little. I now make sure I am very precise with my focusing and ensure that all my details are tack sharp.

Light rays and rain behind Three Sisters in Katoomba

Does technical equipment influence the aesthetic result of images and projects?

I believe that technical equipment, besides things like the focal length of your lens, has very little effect on the aesthetic of an image, especially with the advanced technology that even entry-level cameras have these days. What a more advanced camera or lens will do is improve the details of an image. For example, whilst you can achieve the same Milky Way image with an entry-level DSLR and a flagship full-frame DSLR, the more advanced camera will be able to produce a cleaner image with less noise due to better high ISO performance. Again, while you can capture the same dramatic scene with a $500 wide-angle lens and a $2000 one, the better lens will give you a much sharper image. While these technical improvements are a very good thing, especially if you are printing big, they are far less important than having a good composition. If your focus is slightly soft, some highlights are a little bit blown, but your composition is amazing, then people will admire it much more than a technically perfect image that is underwhelming to the eye.

What equipment do you use?

Currently I own a Nikon D810 and D750, Nikon 16-35mm f/4 and the Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8**. In some of my images I have used the Nikon 14-24 f/2.8, which I love. For a tripod I use the Sirui W-2204 legs and K30II ball head. The only filter I tend to find myself using is a Nisi circular polarizer (CPL).

**I have now added the Sigma 24-70mm f/2.8 ART, and replaced my Nikon 16-35mm f/4 with the Sigma 14-24mm f/2.8 ART lens, which I love!

In your opinion, what is the most important element that could make a photograph look great?

A well thought out composition is by far the most important element to make a great image. There must be a clear subject that the viewers understand, with all elements complementing the subject rather than competing for attention. I also believe that light, rather than being a separate element, is an integral part of the composition. A particular composition that looks incredible during sunrise light may be extremely unflattering in mid-day light, or even at sunset. Light is a crucial part of creating depth and character within an image and will either complete the photo or ruin it. Lastly - and this is naturally more relevant with digital landscape photography compared to film – post-processing can make or break an image. Far too often I see otherwise good images sabotaged by editing that isn’t beneficial to the scene. It can be extremely tempting to bump up the contrast, clarity and saturation in the age of social media in order to grab people’s attention quickly as they scroll past your photos, but the quality of the image almost always suffers as a result. The editing of a photo should be approached as a new project each time, as every scene is different. The steps you take in editing your photo to bring out the best of the RAW files you’ve captured should be aiming to enhance whatever was already present in the scene, rather than forcing something that wasn’t there. If you didn’t get the conditions you wanted, keep revisiting the location! The final image will be much better as a result, and the experience will be much more fulfilling.

Rainbow and dramatic clouds over The Hazards in Coles Bay Tasmania

What is in landscape photography is the most important technical aspect to keep in consideration when shooting?

Every scene in landscape photography is different, and thus provides different challenges. Because of this, there is no single technical aspect that is more important than others, as this will shift in different scenarios.

For example, in a seascape scene, your shutter speed is the most important setting to be considered, as the main focus is to achieve a certain desired effect on the water. This may be an extremely fast shutter speed to freeze a splashing wave, to a slightly slower shutter speed to smooth out water details but still show movement, to an extremely long one in order to flatten out the water and create a misty effect. In order to achieve this, you will need to adjust your aperture and ISO (ISO should ideally be kept at a maximum of 250 or under).

For another example, you may be shooting a mountain scene with a rocky element close to the camera as a foreground. For this, you would want to perhaps use a smaller aperture (e.g. f/16) in order to increase your depth of field so that you don’t have to use too many photos to focus stack later in Photoshop. As the foreground is not moving, you can keep your ISO at 100 and safely increase your shutter speed to compensate for a darker exposure caused by a smaller aperture. At the same time, the aperture shouldn’t be further than f/18 in order to avoid lens diffraction.

As you can see, there are many different things to consider in each different scenario and subject. Rather than focusing on one technical element, it is best to understand all different aspects of capturing a photo in depth so that you know what you should adjust and what compromises you may have to make in order to best capture your image.

Is the tripod a mandatory accessory in landscape photography, or is it possible to get good shots without?

Due to modern camera technology, tripods are becoming less necessary for landscape photography, with the powers of both camera and lens stabilisation and re-alignment in Photoshop having never been as advanced as they are now. Especially with mirrorless bodies from Sony, Nikon and Panasonic, it is now possible to shoot with the shutter open at a speed that would have previously needed a tripod. However, I personally prefer to have the extra security of a tripod more often than not, as I am often focus stacking, exposure blending or shooting in darker scenes. Not using a tripod can still make focus stacks a bit more tricky, exposure blends more difficult to put together due to imperfect alignment, or compromising in ISO in the field to get a manageable shutter speed which results in a lower quality file. There are definitely times when they’re not necessary though and can instead be cumbersome to set up in quickly changing conditions. It’s all about figuring out what method is best in each different situation.

Do you use filters? If so, which ones?

Polarisers are a great filter to have in your kit. I very rarely find myself using ND filters, as I personally don’t enjoy flat misty water or streaking clouds, preferring to capture the drama that is occurring in the moment. Polarisers, on the other hand, are extremely useful, as you simply cannot mimic their effect in editing. They are perfect for rainforest scenes to get rid of glare on leaves, rocks and water, which deepens the green and yellow colours beautifully, and also can be useful for seascapes to create separation between streaks of foam in the water and to remove reflections off rocks. They also darken your exposures by about 1 stop or so, which allows you to use a slightly longer shutter speed.

Rather than using GND filters,  which darken any objects sticking above the horizon,  or HDR,  which produces a rather garish effect that is best left in the mid 2000s,  I prefer to bracket RAW exposures and use luminosity masks to blend them together in Photoshop. This allows much more control over creating a balanced exposure. While the technique can be more difficult to learn, it certainly produces a better final product when it is done well. To create luminosity masks I use a Photoshop plugin which automatically creates brights, darks and mid-tones masks.

Snow and cloudy landscape scene at Mt Kosciuszko
Dramatic stormy sunrise with ocean cliffs and big waves

Does landscape photography require very high resolution for printing?

From my experience, I have found that while extra resolution can be beneficial in landscape photography, it is not as necessary as many people believe. I have had a customer order a 150cm wide canvas print of one of my images, which had 24 megapixels of resolution as it was captured on my Nikon D750. This is about half the resolution of modern-day cameras that are popular for landscape photography, such as the Nikon D850 or Sony A7R series. However, the print turned out fantastic, with no visible pixelation. Naturally, the details were not quite as fine due to the lower resolution, but most people viewing a print that size would not be standing up close to see the details, but rather standing back a few metres to see the image in its entirety. The key for printing is sharpening correctly for the size you’re printing at. With all this being said, I have just recently purchased a Nikon D810 in order to gain more resolution, but this was more to allow myself more flexibility with cropping rather than extra details in printing.

Exactly as in analog photography, in digital we need to develop the results of a shooting session. What is your approach to editing and color correction when managing landscapes?

I believe with digital photography that, as long as you are transparent about your approach and editing, there is no right and wrong. Photography is an art form, as is painting, drawing, music, writing, and many others. Naturally, there are forms of photography that require a stronger sense of realism - such as documentary and reporting photography - but outside of that, the extent of a photographer’s editing is entirely up to them.

The one thing I do not agree with is being deceitful with editing - for example, if a photographer who is not known for creating composites were to put together a scene from multiple different locations or days and then claim it as real, or not say otherwise. Besides deliberately deceiving an audience to gain more attention for their photo, every photographer has their own right to interpret reality and enhance their images as they wish.

I believe that viewing a photo, no matter how beautiful, can never translate fully the experience of actually being in a place. In order to compensate for this, I am willing to enhance a photo perhaps a little bit beyond what the actual scene was like, employing visual techniques such as colour theory and targeted contrast adjustments, in order to bring the photograph up to the same level of awe that the actual scene would have conveyed.

Another interesting concept that I take into consideration is that our brain naturally filters out a huge amount of what we actually see, regarding it as non-important. This means that while you can look at a subject in person and thoroughly enjoy the composition, the photograph will also capture all of those other things that the brain filters out, causing it to look less attractive. Because of this, I am happy to edit out distractions to the subject being conveyed or employ techniques to make sure that minimal attention is drawn to those distracting elements.

Can a savvy editing session transform a bad landscape into a very good one?

In my opinion, no landscape photographer should rely on editing for their images to be appealing. If that is the case, then in a sense they are no longer landscape photographers but rather digital artists. While proficient image editing is an important asset to have in your arsenal, and is almost crucial to giving your work a signature look to be differentiated from all of the other photographers out there, it cannot compensate for what happens in the field. As I’ve said before, composition and light is king, and the editing you do should bring an already great photo to the next level, rather than trying to patch up something mediocre. So while impressive editing can improve a bad image, it can’t replace capturing quality content in the field.

Amazing red sunrise seascape scene at Lion Rock in Tasmania

Do you aim to capture good raw data in the field for further developing, or try and get the image at it's best straight out of the camera?

Since my workflow of creating a final image involves piecing together different exposures for dynamic range, focus and slight variations in light, I tend to focus on creating files that will give me flexibility and a clean final result after processing. This means that while I may desire an image to be quite dark as the final result, I will shoot it brighter and towards the middle of my histogram so that I don’t lose any details in the shadows when I make it darker in post processing. This gives more control and higher quality files to work with in editing later on to bring out the best aesthetic of the image that I can.

What are the main limitations of newbie photographers who try their hand in landscape photography?

I think that the biggest limitation to newbie photographers starting out in landscapes is themselves. It is very easy to be discouraged by the amazing photographs that you see online, and to think to yourself “Why am I not as good as them? I’ll never take photos like that.” But what you don’t see on Instagram is the countless hours and financial investments they’ve put into their craft. It takes time to get to such a high standard. I have been taking photographs since the end of 2013, and only six or seven years later am I creating images that I am happy with and that are getting more recognition. Spend time enjoying it, figuring it out, study your favourite photographers and what makes their photos work. Understand that it will not come right away, but with time, patience and persistence, your images will improve.

What are 5 good reasons to dive into landscape photography?

1. Visiting amazing places! Landscape photography means that you get to explore some really beautiful locations that you may not have visited otherwise. There are many locations within a couple of hours of me that I never knew existed until I began landscape photography.

2. Deeper appreciation of nature. Our natural world is one of the most precious resources we have. As our world moves further into technological advancement and electronic devices becoming an increasing part of our every day lives, it is vital that we still seek the natural world and the refreshment it provides, as well as advocating for its preservation. Very few things can teach you perspective like hiking a mountain, exploring a rainforest or standing amongst the waves. 

3. Seeing things differently. Landscape photography has helped me to see the natural world in a totally new way. Rather than my eyes glossing over a scene, I see so much more beauty wherever I look. Amazing rock patterns present themselves to my eyes; the way a stream interacts with light mesmerises me; the way a tree branch frames a waterfall blows my mind. Getting out there and learning to see the natural world through a landscape photography eye will transform the way you look at things, and help you to see the beauty in what you would otherwise dismiss.

4. Exercise! Landscape photography, more than many other genres, will mean you are walking or hiking to locations, as well as carrying heavy gear. Hiking through a rainforest or on top of cliffs rather than just on your treadmill is a much more fun way to get fit!

5. Allowing others to see amazing places. Not only is landscape photography a great way for you to experience amazing things yourself, it’s also a way for you to share those places with others! There’s nothing like exploring somewhere beautiful and being able to share what you saw in a creative way. The more people that appreciate the natural wonders of our world, the better!

Dramatic storm cloud and lightning bolt framed by cave in Wentworth Falls, Blue Mountains

To finish off, can you tell us a story about one of your favourite photos?

I think one of my favourite photos would have to be my image titled ‘Mutant’ (above). My experience of capturing this image was the most exhilarating and terrifying experience of my life. What you see there is the ridiculous scene that took place before my eyes only 10 minutes before one of the most violent storms of the past decade in the Blue Mountains ripped past the little cave I was situated in. I had kept an eye on an intense storm as it built up out to the west, and knew that this cave at Lincoln’s Rock would frame the scene perfectly. I arrived in the cave with the sky already looking black and ominous, and watched as this powerful cell slowly moved over the valley, glowing green and sending bolts down regularly. The cloud unfurled like some sort of mutant beast, growing in size and traction with every passing minute. Foolishly, I thought I could wait out the storm inside the cave, and didn’t bother leaving when it came to hit. I then spent over half an hour being protected only by a small umbrella that was constantly being turned inside out by the winds, and being blasted by horizontal rain, bits of sandstone and powerful winds. The terror continued when a bolt struck less than 100 metres away from me as I reached my car. As I drove home, debris from trees lay all over the roads, and several emergency response vehicles flashed past me on the highway. While I learnt an important lesson about storm chasing the hard way, the images that I managed to come away with speak for the scene. The intense experience definitely taught me who was in control.

I'd like to thank the team over at Fotografia and Progresso Fotografico again for the opportunity to answer some questions with them. I hope you've enjoyed the insight into my photographic philosophies and approaches if you've gotten this far. Feel free to get in contact with me if you have any questions!

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