Photographer of the Month Interview: Ben Horne | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, May 2018:   Ben Horne

We are happy to have Ben Horne as our featured guest photographer this month. We appreciate that he gave us some of his time and generously shared his beautiful photography with us! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: What started you with photography as a creative outlet?

I've experimented with a variety of creative outlets over the years including writing and drawing, but it was when I was introduced to photography in high school that I really fell in love with it. I took a class in my junior year, and learned the basics of 35mm film and darkroom work.

:: Did you start with film...or move into film from digital, and why large format film?

I started with 35mm film, but I bought my first digital camera at about the same time, so I was introduced to both film and digital simultaneously. Though I didn't use the 35mm film camera very much after high school. It was when I was in college that I bought my first digital SLR, a Canon D30. That was really a game changer for me because it gave a lot more creative control, including shallow depth of field, and long exposures. I built a kit of lenses, and worked with the Canon digital system until roughly 2009. To be honest, switching to large format film was a big surprise. I never thought I would shoot film again, let alone large format, but a friend suggested I get a 4x5 for my landscape work. I was attracted to shooting film because of the improved image quality -- and although that is certainly true, it was the process of working with large format that I enjoyed even more. The limitation of working with this format have really shaped me as a photographer.

:: When you’re out on a photo trip how many slides do you pack with you? How do you store your film when you’re hiking?

On an average day, I take about 4 film holders with me, which gives me a total of 8 photos. Sometimes, depending on the location I am shooting, I am carrying two different film stocks for different uses. Back in my truck, I have additional film film holders, and boxes of fresh film. The film in my truck is stored in a cooler to protect it from heat, which can damage film. On an average trip, I expose somewhere between 20 and 30 sheets of film.

:: Can you talk a little about having such a selective number of shots affects how you pursue a composition? Once you find a composition, how many shots will you use on that composition?

Though it might seem very limiting to carry only 8 sheets of film each day, it's actually quite a bit of film. My goal for each day of the trip is to shoot at least one subject, but if I'm lucky I'll find 2 or 3 subjects to shoot. I spend a lot of time wandering around, and looking for subjects that might look interesting, then I'll come up with a plan on when the lighting will be best. Once the composition is set, I prefer to expose at least 2 sheets of film on that subject. Though it's uncommon for something bad to happen to the film, exposing 2 sheets increases my odds of success. If I am shooting a subject on the ground and the light is consistent, I'll shoot one or two photos of that scene, then pack up my camera. If on the other hand, I am shooting more of a grand vista with changing light, I'll expose several sheets of film as the light changes. It would be uncommon to expose more than 3 or 4 sheets of film of the same subject though. It doesn't take long for this sort of limitation to seem normal.

:: What would you say is the most common technical reason an image doesn’t work for you? When digital shooters find that perfect composition they can always take the time necessary to shoot enough to make sure they get it right...but you could and probably do have times where you’ve come all the way home, and only realize with the film that you messed something up. How do you keep from getting too bummed out, and beating yourself up...because that situation and that effort that you put in can’t be repeated?

The ground glass on the back of the camera is often times very dim. With my wide angle lens, I have a difficult time viewing the entire composition at once. I can move my head around and view each section at a time, but I often times don't know how the composition works as a whole until I see the developed film. There are times that the composition just doesn't work as a whole, or perhaps I overlooked something. I've gotten better at this, but it still does sneak up on me every now and then.

:: How do you deal with a situation where you have a composition you like, but there’s a lot of wind, or some other situation where a combining images shot with different exposures might remedy it with a digital camera? Do you just not long will you wait for a composition to get the right conditions?

That is one of the really difficult things about shooting 8x10. The camera acts like a sail, and even a slight breeze can shake the camera. If it is very windy, and there aren't any breaks in the wind, I'm not able to take a photo. I know that some people will use a golf umbrella to shield the camera, but I think that would be a lot to juggle if you don't have someone else with you. There is a benefit to not being able to shoot in the wind -- all of my photos are shot in very calm conditions, which means that my portfolio as a whole has a very calm feel to it. It helps to unify the body of work. There are many other situations where I can't shoot, so I've learned to enjoy those moments without having to take a photo.

:: The videos are awesome. Why did you start making them? Do you start with various story ideas? Or how much pre-planning goes into this process...or does the story shape up as the experience unfolds?

I started filming the video journals back in 2009. I had a traditional photo blog at the time, but I often struggled with the blog posts. I found it difficult to describe where I was and what happened that day, so I started supplementing the written blog posts with short video clips. It was then that I realized how powerful video was for conveying the feeling of a trip, and I switched to an all video format. This was before landscape vlogging was a thing, and I am pretty sure I was the first photographer to start recording daily video journals on landscape photography trips. A lot has changed since 2009, and now there are a lot of people doing similar content, which I think is a great thing because it helps everyone raise the bar a bit with quality. The only pre-planning involved is really from a photography standpoint. I plan on where to go and what I want to try and shoot, but the video is just a matter of what happens on each day. I think story telling is important, and each day does have a unique story to tell. It's a process I really enjoy.

:: Do you ever shoot digital to help find compositions or check exposure settings? Do you ever consider just giving up the large format and embracing the freedom of the smaller cameras?

A lot of people are curious about this. It would seem that using a digital camera to find a composition or an exposure would make sense, but in practice, it is easier to just work with the film camera and a light meter. I have become very accustomed to the lenses I have, and if something that catches my eye, I'll know which lens to use, and what sort of composition I can get with it. There's seldom a surprise where I put a particular lens on my camera, only to realize that it doesn't look anything like what I had in mind. I think that is something that comes with practice, and using this equipment for quite a while.

One of the great things about shooting large format film is that I can step outside the obsolescence cycle. It's really comforting to know that the photo I shot back in 2010 on 8x10 film will be the same high quality as the photo I shoot 5 years from now on 8x10 film. With digital, I would look back at photos from 7 years ago, and wish they were taken with a more modern camera. It helps me to be very satisfied with my lenses, and my camera, and it also helps me to really get to know the equipment I'm working with.

I'm not immune to new technology though. I really love working with new gear, and the video side is where I get to play with all the new toys. My video kit has changed quite a bit through the years, and I just recently sold my Nikon D750 for a Sony A7sII. I am looking forward to the extreme low light ability that camera has to offer.

:: All your travels are solo expeditions? What are the advantages to this kind of work? What creative ways have you developed to battle the periods of loneliness you might encounter?

I sometimes meet up with other photographers in the field, but the vast majority of my trips are solo. It was a bit weird at first, but now I am very accustomed to it. Traveling solo allows me to dedicate all of my time and energy to photography. I can spend as much time as I need on one particular subject without the fear of someone else being bored, or want to move on. This is something I credit for some of my favorite photos, including a sand dune photo in Death Valley that took me 3 days until I finally had proper conditions. Loneliness can definitely be an issue. When I'm with my truck, I have satellite radio so there is always something to listen to when driving. I have an old iPod nano that I load up with podcasts to help kill time when waiting for light, but I try to avoid listening to music. If you're off by yourself in a vast, barren, desert landscape and a song comes on that has an ever so slightly lonely vibe to it, it really enhances the feeling that's already there. In the past, I would depend on my iPod perhaps too much, so I've try to avoid listening to it unless I really need a boost. On my spring backpacking trip, I made a point of not using the iPod at all, which was actually a pretty big achievement. It allowed me to better experience the wold around me.

:: Have you found that there’s resurgence in any way with large format film photography? What do you think is the biggest hold up for people shooting film?

There has definitely been a resurgence in large format film. I know quite a few long time digital shooters who became curious about large format film. Once people get to that level, they are usually hooked. I remember a few years ago when I was in Zion National Park along with several photographer friends. I was in the process of packing up my gear after taking a photo, and my friend Alan Brock told me that after shooting Zion on large format film, he can't imagine going back to digital. That was the first trip that he left his digital camera behind and brought only his 4x5 view camera. There's something about it that's very addictive. Though the cost of shooting film can be a bit expensive, it's not so bad when you compare it to digital. You don't have to upgrade the camera every few years, so it's really just the cost of film and processing. The biggest hurdles are learning how to use a light meter, and learning how to use each individual film stock. Once people get the hang of that, working with large format is actually quite simple.

:: Do you think people truly appreciate all the extra work that goes into making the images you make? Or do you find that people kind of trivialize it? When people assume it’s shot with a digital camera do you go out of your way to make sure they know, “NO THIS IS FILM...and NOT JUST ORDINARY FILM.” I feel like I would be SO mad if people called my images digitally shot. How do you deal with those folks?

For most normal print sizes, it would be tough to tell if a particular photo was shot on film or digital. You would have to print very large to see the difference, and I don't often do that, so technically much of my potential for print quality goes un-utilized. That being said, it's not just about the quality of the photo that is produced. What's perhaps more important is how working with this format has shaped me as a photographer. It has given me a stronger sense of discipline, and forced me to look at the world around me a bit differently. I think this is the sort of thing that comes through in the photos, and that people will perhaps recognize. Many years ago I was showing my work at an art show here in San Diego. The vast majority of people who viewed my work were not photographers, and didn't even know what large format was. It was very interesting to see them stand back from the photos, then get a bit closer, and even closer. Eventually they were looking at the prints as close as they could get. Afterwards many of the people would comment there was something different about my work that they couldn't put into words... the choice of subjects, the lighting, and also the print quality. They recognized that it was different, but they didn't know why. To me, that was a great compliment. I don't really go out of my way to inform people about the differences between digital and film, but I do get the same questions over and over. If a non photographer sees me shooting the 8x10 camera, the number one question is "Is that a Hasselblad?" Perhaps it is because of the use of Hasselblad cameras for the moon landing that people know the name. Here is the more surprising thing though. When diehard digital photographers see me shooting the 8x10, they will often ask "How do you like shooting medium format?" In some ways, it's the same question.

:: All negatives eventually get scanned into the does your post processing methods differ from a digital user, and how do you respond to the people who will say, “well it all goes into the computer in the end...why add all those extra steps?”

One of the things I love about the hybrid film/digital workflow is that it gives a lot of control over the process. Even though the end result is a digital file, it really does have a different look than digital. If I shoot color negative film, I have an enormous dynamic range to work with. Unlike digital, there is almost endless detail in the highlights. Also, I can scan at whatever resolution I want, which is an added plus. I scan the files at a relatively low contrast 16 bit Tiff, then work with it in photoshop. I use layers, masks, and curves to do most of my work. My goal in most cases is to make the low contrast scan resemble the actual film. Just like with digital, there are times that film will get the color of the scene wrong, so I sometimes have to work to control that. Fuji Velvia 50 film in particular will go very blue in the shadows. It can be a very nice effect at times, but it's also something I need to control.

:: What is a couple of the scariest thing that has happened to you while out shooting?

Probably the scariest thing was when I lost my footing on a very narrow trail in Zion with a very steep drop-off. Thankfully I was able to grab a hold of a chain, but that certainly had my heart racing. Beyond that, I've had some very challenging situations with some rough roads that were difficult to negotiate, but I made it through those situations fine. I try to avoid taking risks since I am out there by myself, but sometimes stuff happens.

Being as you don’t produce as much work as the typical landscape digital photographer, how do you keep active in the community, and how does social media differ for you in the way that you use it? With so much emphasis on these platforms for sharing work...and you working at a much slower and deliberate pace what negatives do you think this world of instant gratification creates in landscape photography?

I enjoy the fact that I am not caught up in the cycle of having to post new work all the time. Sometimes I will post some older photos, but I think people don't really expect me to constantly post new work. I am most active on Twitter, which I really enjoy because it is more about the sense of community than posting photos all the time like on Instagram.

:: What do you do in your spare time when you’re not out shooting?

I work full time in addition to doing my photography, so most of my time is consumed by those two things. It seems like there isn't enough time in the day!

:: Your work requires such effort, and patience...please tell me you have one aspect of your life where you absolutely have no patience and let loose all that stress that the pace of your photography requires?

One of the things I love about photography is that there are different types of subjects for each personality. Some photographers love working with people so they shoot portraits or weddings, and others like myself would rather just go off on their own and shoot landscapes. A good friend of mine is a very well accomplished commercial photographer. He travels all over the world doing shoots for high profile clients. That sort of photography would be incredibly stressful for me, but he loves it. On the other hand, I'm sure he would be very stressed by going off into the wilderness by himself. Overall I am a very patient person, so I think it just kind of comes with the territory.

Ben Horne

"One of the things I love about the hybrid film/digital workflow is that it gives a lot of control over the process. Even though the end result is a digital file, it really does have a different look than digital. If I shoot color negative film, I have an enormous dynamic range to work with..."

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