Photographer of the Month Interview: Chris Kayler | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, April 2015:   Chris Kayler

Our thanks to Chris Kayler, our featured guest photographer for April, 2015. We appreciate that he's taken the time to share some of his awesome photography and thoughts with us! Please visit his links to see more of his work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: How did you get your start with photography? Was it always landscape and nature photography or did you have a start with any other subject matter? Why did you pick photography as a career path?

My path to becoming a nature photographer began with a deep love of nature itself. I grew up in Upstate New York, about 40 minutes north of Syracuse. With a step out of my house I was treated to miles and miles of forest. It sounds cliché, but I roamed those forests almost every day. I knew them so well that I could explore without any fear of getting lost. I thank my Mom and Grandparents for allowing me such freedom. If I had been stifled and forced to stay within sight like so many children are, I don't know if I ever would have gained the depth of appreciation that I have today.

Photography came later. Whether it was an attempt to show the beauty of nature to others, or simply a creative outlet, I'm not really sure. Whatever it was, I picked up a Minolta film camera in the middle of my high school years and it was full steam ahead from there. Within a year, I had purchased a Canon 10D digital camera and 300 f/4 lens.

My initial photographic pursuit was birds. Something about the challenge of getting close enough to a wild bird to capture a detailed photograph was addicting. It was like Pokémon for adults. As time passed, though, I grew tired of the chase. I wanted to create images that felt more artistic. Photographing things like larger mammals allowed a bit more creativity, as they tended to be more cooperative, but landscape photographs ultimately gave me the most satisfaction. They also gave me the most difficulty. I loved the challenge. There is something so rewarding about purposefully crafting a composition from the elements that are laid out before you. When you succeed, it really feels like you have accomplished something to be proud of. My ability to travel and see amazing things combined with a feeling of accomplishment is why I can't imagine having any other job than a professional fine art nature photographer.

:: Being an East Coast landscape guy, you are in a region that isn't as iconic (or overshot) as the west? What challenges does that present to you? What opportunities do you feel you have in this area that others may not?

I feel very lucky for having begun my journey in photography on the East Coast. I don't want to get too East Coast vs West Coast here, but I think that in the East we have to work a little harder to create images. Generalizing hugely, the East Coast tends to have much more complex and dense habitats than that of the West Coast, with the exception of the great rainforests of the Pacific Northwest. There is no big sky on the East Coast. There is no scene where all of the elements are painfully obvious. Things are naturally beautiful here, but you have to work just a bit harder to see it. The same holds true for photographing in the East. I think that by beginning my career here I really learned to break scenes down into smaller components and figure out how to create balance and flow within a composition. I can take this skillset and apply it to any scene anywhere in the world. Additionally, since there are not as many hotspots and photographers to emulate in the East, I feel that my own unique vision was able to blossom without being tainted by what other photographers were doing.

:: In your bio you mention emotion connected to landscape and nature photography quite a lot. What about this genre of photography do you think brings out emotion? Better yet, how do you bring out an emotion without a person in a shot?

The emotions that I feel when immersed in nature are very real. If I am having a stressful week, getting outside to photograph will often calm me and give me a greater sense of contentment. Seeing an outrageous sunset will fill me with elation. Walking alone in the desert at night will prompt deep contemplation. Failing for days straight at getting a photograph will make me feel lonely, sad, and defeated. And you know what? Whether the feelings of a particular moment are good, bad, or somewhere in between, it doesn't matter. Feeling anything means that I am alive. I am never more alive then when I am pursuing creativity in nature. So, do I think that there is something about nature photography in particular that brings out emotion? Absolutely. For me, it is the connection to my childhood memories. For all of us, it is a connection to where we came from. I try to show what my unique view on the world is like through my photography and hope that others can get a taste of my experience, emotion and all.

:: Being a relatively young photographer, what do you look to in order to grow as a photographer? What inspires you and what do you feel you are still working on that you struggle with? What scares you about this choice as a profession?

The thing that is most inspiring as a young photographer is that I still have a lifetime ahead of me of exploration and learning. That same realization is also the scariest part. I want to feel financially secure for an entire lifetime. Who knows what my photography business will be like decades from now? All I can do now is stay creative, work hard, and continue photographing as often as possible in order to continue growing.

:: You have a nice mixture of wildlife and landscape work. Do you have a preference on what you head out to photograph? Meaning, do you set out specifically looking to shoot wildlife, or is it more opportunistic? You mention that photographing wildlife in a grand scene is your favorite. What about that type of shooting inspires your creativity more than the rest?

On any given day that I head out to photograph, I almost always have a specific subject in mind. I do however try to keep my mind open to new opportunities. This works well when I find an intimate scene on the forest floor that I decide to photograph, but is generally not suitable when photographing wildlife. Yes, I might be able to snag a photo here and there of a certain fleeting species while out strolling in the woods, but those images will never be up to my standards of creativity. They tend to serve more as documentation than as art. My goal is to find situations where wildlife is relatively tame and approachable. If they happen to live in a beautiful setting, even better. A few of my favorite scenarios would be common loons in the mountain ponds of the Adirondacks, osprey nests along the mighty Potomac River, and white-tailed deer in Shenandoah National Park. By seeking out these scenarios I really let my creativity flow by combining my love of landscape photography with my love of wildlife. To nail an image of wildlife within a grand landscape is harder than either wildlife or landscape photography on its own. Too often the wildlife in wildlife photography lives in a vacuum, completely removed from its environment. I love the challenge and satisfaction of creating a beautiful photograph showing an animal within its surroundings. I'm going to be writing an E-Book on the subject of creative wildlife photography very soon, so stay tuned for that!

:: Describe the pre-visualization process that you go through when heading out to shoot. How much planning do you put in to what you create? You make mention of careful selection of lens, filter, and settings, but how much of that process takes place prior to even leaving the house?

Maybe this is something that will change with time, but I find my pre-visualization process to be quite vague. I always have a goal in mind, but I rarely "see" the image in my head. I've always wondered how other photographers approach this. Do they "see" the image before coming across it?

Here is an example of my typical workflow for a shoot. I've decided that I want to photograph sunset in the mountains somewhere. I decide that I'll head out to Blackrock Summit in Shenandoah National Park. I arrive at the location, walk out to Blackrock Summit, and take in any information that I can. Is there lingering fog from a passing thunderstorm? What shapes and patterns do the clouds form? Is there a gap along the horizon where the sun will shine through to light up the clouds, land, or both? What colors are present, and how do they interact with each other? Are they complimentary, homogenous, warm, cool? What does it smell like? What sounds do I hear? Paying attention to everything and allowing myself to be fully immersed in the experience allows a connection to the place, and that connection shows in my photographs. After just being there for a bit, I take my camera out without a tripod and walk around trying to find compositions that work well with the conditions present. Eventually, I settle on one final composition. I bring my tripod over. I fiddle and perfect the composition until everything is just right. I stay there and shoot that image as the light changes and select the best one or two to process once back home.

I used to run around a lot more and try to get as many compositions as possible, but lately I've found it better to get one or two really well done images than a bunch of haphazard and rushed ones. As far as camera settings and filters, that process takes place completely in the field. As the light changes, I instinctually change the camera settings and apply whatever filters are needed. My lens selections are based on the composition that I want. Photographing often enough so that you don't need to actively think about these things will help you to focus more on the scene and how you want to portray it.

:: What is the scariest thing you've had happen while out on a shoot?

Late one night in coastal South Carolina, I parked my car and heard a bunch of calling tree frogs in the distance. I wanted to photograph them, so I donned my photo backpack, picked up my tripod in one hand, and secured my headlamp around my head. I ventured out into the thickest cypress swamp that I had ever seen. I'm sure you can see where this story is going. And you're right. I got lost. Very lost. I circled around the swamp for hours. I would attempt to go straight in the direction I thought I needed to go, only to end up right where I had started. I was completely turned around. Several times I gave up and sat down on any dry spot I could find to try get some sleep while waiting for morning light to return. The mosquitoes quickly put an end to that plan. Eventually, by sheer chance, I found an old 4WD trail and followed it through the woods until it led to a power line cut. I followed that power line cut back to the road, and finally found my car at 3AM.

:: Favorite piece of non-photographic gear, and why?

My 2007 Toyota Rav4! It is my constant companion. It carries my food, gets me to places that are off the beaten path, and plays music for me. On rainy nights, I can even lay down my back seats and sleep comfortably.

:: When you're looking for details in nature, what strikes you as interesting and catches your eye?

Striking patterns with strong lines and shapes. When I deconstruct scenes into lines and shapes it becomes much easier to create balanced compositions.

:: What shortfalls does the technology have for you now that you feel needs to change for you to really realize your full creativity as an artist? What scares you about where technology is headed?

There is no technological shortcoming currently that impedes my creativity as an artist. I think we should all work on focusing less on gear and more on taking pictures creatively!

:: Social Media is an interesting aspect of modern photography. How do you try to utilize it to your benefit, and what aspects of it do you think dampens the creative process, if any?

I utilize social media as a way to inform my followers of any important news related to my business and as a space to share new images. I also enjoy posting images on various critique websites. I think it is up to us to determine if we want to be slaves to the social media world. Do I get excited when other people like an image that I am also excited about? Yes! Do I get let down when people aren't excited about an image that I am excited about? Yes, at least a little bit. I want others to like my images. However, I always strive to stay true to my own creative vision without letting others sway me too much.

:: What is on your bucket list for 2105 that you hope to accomplish?

I want to make it up to Coastal Maine. I've only been about 10 miles into Maine (from northern New Hampshire) but it seems like such an appealing, beautiful, and rugged place. Plus, the beer culture in Portland is among the best in the United States. Business wise, I want to finish a couple of E-Books that I have been working on, and also begin my image critiquing service. As a novice photographer I feel that I learned so quickly by receiving constructive criticism from other photographers. With a few exceptions, I've noticed that commenting on images online has largely turned into a big pat on the back. It just doesn't seem as helpful as it could be. I want to offer an in-depth critique service to photographers that will cover everything from composition to post processing.

:: How old were you when you won the Nature's Best Student award in 2007? How did that help shape or change the way your career progressed? How would you advise new young photographers looking to get started in this profession?

I was 19 years old at that time. Wow, that seems like such a long time ago! I think that winning the "Master in the Making" really validated a lot of what I had been doing and gave me some confidence to move forward with photography as a career choice and not just a hobby. I had long considered Nature's Best to contain some of the highest quality work among any magazine, so it was a huge deal for me to be considered among their ranks. My advice for new photographers would be to photograph a lot, perfect the technical aspects of photography so that you don't need to think about them, give honest critiques in forums to other photographers so that you can learn what works for you and what doesn't, spend less time worrying about gear, build up a body of work over the course of 5 or 10 years, move slowly into the business, and have fun!

Chris Kayler

"I love the challenge and satisfaction of creating a beautiful photograph showing an animal within its surroundings."

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