Photographer of the Month Interview: David Thompson | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, December 2013:   David Thompson

This month, our featured guest photographer is David Thompson! We appreciate the time he took from his very busy schedule to answer our questions, and to share some of his terrific work with us! Please visit his links to see more of his inspiring work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: How did you get your start with photography? What brought you to this medium?

I got started with photography in 2005. My father gave me a Pentax ZX-7 35mm film camera. At the time I had no idea how to operate it. I would turn the camera on, switch it to auto, and attempt to take a decent picture. I didn't know about f stops, aperture or focal lengths. I just knew how to turn it on and off and that's it. After many failed attempts of trying to capture a decent picture, and the high costs of film development, I gave up on film.

In 2008 when my son was born, I bought my first digital camera. I figured I needed to start taking pictures of the family, and digital would be much easier to handle. Later on that year, while visiting family in Southern California, I found myself visiting the coast quite often. With those visits to the coast, I would see some of the most incredible sunsets with blazing light and color, but didn't have any idea how to capture what I was seeing. From there, that's where my photography journey began.

:: Were you born in Las Vegas, or did you move there? Are there any other locations that might have shaped a love for the outdoors?

I was born in Las Vegas. Both my parents were in the military, which relocated us to Holloman AFB, New Mexico. This is were I started to spend a lot of time in the outdoors. If I wasn't out riding my bike, or skateboarding, me and friends were out hiking in the foothills of the mountains. During the spring my parents would take me to White Sands, and I would run around the dunes all day long. As I got older, I would do overnight fishing trips at Elephant Butte near Truth or Consequences with my mother's coworkers. We would also go camping in the Lincoln National forest when the weather was nice, along with some hiking and hunting. At the time, I was just happy to be out in the wilderness, running around being free. The feelings are the same now, but I have my camera to join me.

:: What about the natural world draws you in? Being in a major metropolitan area like Vegas, did you become interested in architectural photography or portraits? Or have you done any other kinds of photography?

What draws me in about the natural world is that it is forever changing. The conditions are never the same, the seasons change the landscape. Also, I like the thought of not knowing exactly what to expect when I arrive at a location...the thought of the unknown is intriguing. It's all about landscape/nature photography for me. It's all I know. One would think that I'd be into architectural photography living here in Vegas, but for me, I try to get as far away from people as possible. I like not seeing all the crowds, or shinny lights when I leave Vegas. It's a relief!

:: What kind of specific things were you looking to get out of the classes you took in the beginning, and how did they help shape how you approach photography now?

When I took these workshops there were two things that I wanted to improve, and I'm still striving to become proficient at: composition and post processing. With the workshops that I took, the instructors taught me a few things that have always stuck with me. One of the things that I learned at one of the workshops was to look at the landscape/scene in its entirety. From there, determine what you like and dislike about the scene, then simplify it, or break it down to have a nice visual flow. The other thing that I learned is how important post processing is. At the time that I had taken these workshops, I would do the bare minimals with my post processing. The workshops opened my eyes to explore, research and be creative with my post processing. To this day, I'm truly thankful that the instructors helped me out in these areas. I use these practices still to this day.

:: When you head out to shoot, do you go with a specific plan? How much do you improvise in the field (compositions, etc.)?

Generally I have a specific plan that I'll go with if the conditions look favorable. I always try and have a plan B and a worse case scenario plan as well. Most of the time I always end up going to my plan B because the weather conditions aren't favorable for good light. I try to plan my trips around where I think the light may be best. That works sometimes, but not always. I have cancelled many trips because the weather wasn't looking favorable and I had no other options. As we all know, mother nature has a mind of its own. There have been times where I have just improvised, and gotten to a location and just went on a whim. I always try to be as flexible as possible. I believe, having some flexibility in your plans can yield great results.

:: Before you head out to shoot, and are trying to decide where to go, what do you look for online to help you plan and prepare?

Since the majority of my trips are based on the weather conditions, I usually check 2-3 different weather websites to get a full weather report before I head out. From there I usually go on Google Earth or Google Maps to do a little more research, if I'm heading to a new location. I'll try to get myself somewhat familiar with the area from the maps. Occasionally I do a Google search and gather as much information as possible from blogs, forums, or from other images from the area that I am visiting. You can find all kinds of info on the Internet these days.

:: What was the scariest thing you've encountered with the severe weather patterns you live around, while out shooting? Have you had a scary encounter that's not weather related while out shooting?

LOL!!! It's a funny story now. but not so much at the time! I'm glad I can laugh about it now. Back in the summer of 2012, my buddy Paul Rojas and I had plans to head to the Eastern Sierras. I was telling him that maybe we should have a back up plan just in case the weather conditions weren't looking favorable. Sure enough, the forecast was calling for clear blue skies in the Sierras. Paul was already bummed out because he was dying to get out to shoot after not shooting for some months. I asked him, hey Paul, "have you ever photographed the monsoons?" He said, no……execute the back up plan! I told him, you're in for some serious action this weekend, so get your butt over here to Vegas ASAP!

We head out first thing the following morning, first stop, Valley of Fire. We ended up getting super sweet conditions for sunrise. We had exploding light to the east, and residual light bleeding over to the west, mix with super dramatic/moody skies/ Heck, we even caught a rainbow in the mix of that. Next stop Toroweap, North Rim of the Grand Canyon. On the ride into Toroweap the monsoon storms were already building early that morning. We arrived at Toroweap, we set up our camp and decide to go explore the rim of the canyon looking for comps. After a couple hours of exploring we decided to head back to the campsite.

After a short nap, we awoke to thundering and lightning. The lightning bolts were like the ones you'd see in a movie. The bolts of lightning were shooting in every direction. Paul and I were so excited to photograph the the approaching storm, we grabbed our gear and started hiking out to the rim of the canyon. All you could see is this huge black wall of clouds to the southeast. About half way to the rim of the canyon the storm starts to break bad. I mean BAD!

The winds picked up out of nowhere, it starts pouring rain. The rain was coming down so hard I can feel the rain drops hitting my skin through my coat. We were officially caught in a thunder storm. Hunkered down underneath the smallest Juniper tree we could find. At this point, the winds picked up, the rain started falling harder, the thunder was getting louder, and the lightning flashes brighter. I had a brief moment of uncertainty. It seemed like there was no end in sight with the passing storm. That was the longest 15 minutes I had experienced in photography. There was a huge sigh of relief after the storm passed. That was definitely a learning experience.

God...I can't believe I'm sharing this story, because I have yet to tell anyone about this one. Again, the summer of 2012, I don't know what was going on with me that summer but a few weeks later I found myself in another predicament. I was shooting the coast in Cornwall, UK. I was at this location called Porth Nanven beach. The beach consists of egg shaped boulders that are perfectly smooth. The boulders are extremely slick when wet, so any type of movement over or on the boulders requires much care.

The evening that I shot the beach had clear skies with beautiful warm light gracing the boulders. I wanted a different vantage point, so I decided to scramble over the higher boulders/small cliffs and head to the other side of beach. The other side of the beach was just as photogenic as the egg shaped boulders on the main beach.

Once I got to the top of the larger rocks of the beach, I noticed that the tide was fairly low, revealing all types of cool tide pools. The problem was getting down to the tide pools. The area going down to the tide pools was these huge rock formations that were borderline cliffs that had drop offs approximately 10-15ft in some areas. I decided to make my way down to the tide pools, which I navigated fairly well. I manage to get down the high sections with ease. Unable to find workable compositions I was happy with, I decided to leave. I figured I would go up the same way I got down. Well……that ended up being a mistake.

I found a spot that wasn't too high that I could climb back up. This particular section was probably 10ft high or so. I took my backpack off, threw it up onto the ledge, then tossed my tripod up as well. I was trying to find a decent grip on the ledge but with the rocks being so smooth and wet, it was difficult finding a good grip to pull myself up. I got myself positioned to pull myself up, here we go. About half way into pulling myself up I started to lose my grip and could feel my body starting to lean backwards. I'm thinking to myself "oh crap" I'm slipping. At this point the fear is setting in because I know if I fall i'm going directly to my head. There I am, feet dangling, struggling, flopping around trying to get my grip, with my elbows and knees knocking against the rocks, trying to hold on for dear life.

I was trying to find something, ANYTHING at this point, to grab onto. I was lucky enough to get my finger tips into this small crack to get some grip. I managed to barely pull myself up onto the rocks without falling. Both my knees and elbows were all bruised and cut up. Afterwards, I was thankful for not falling because I didn't tell anyone where I was. That fall would have messed me up good.

:: What is one of the places on your bucket list, and why?

Iceland is very high on my to-see list. The area looks very diverse, unique, and I think that photographing Iceland would be a great experience in my photography journey.

:: You are fortunate to live near some really great and diverse landscapes; what local spot is your favorite, and because it is so familiar to you, what added challenges do you find you have photographing it?

My favorite local spot would have to be the Mesquite Sand dunes in Death Valley. I've always had a fascination with sand dunes since I was a kid. The landscape there is unique, in the sense that the light will completely change the character of the dunes. Its the one landscape that you can photograph in any kind of light. The challenge for me is trying to create compelling images from the area and getting decent light to make the dunes come to life. I feel the area has many possibilities, but seeking those possibilities out is a challenge.

:: What is your favorite piece of non-photographic equipment, and why?

My favorite piece of non photography equipment has to be my Columbia fleece jacket. That jacket goes with me everywhere, even if I don't need it. Its fairly light, and I can pack that jacket into my backpack with no problems. That jacket has been through a whole lot!

:: What is the most difficult part of photography for you now, as opposed to five years ago?

The most challenging aspect of photography for me is being able to create images how I envision them. At times it's hard to translate what I see and feel within a scene. When I start to process the image, I try to convey a mood or feeling that people can understand or relate to. When I first started shooting I didn't have a clue how to go about doing this with an image. Even now I still struggle with this. It's a challenge, but I still try my best to convey what I see, and how I feel.

:: Do you think social media has hurt or helped photography? If so, how?

I think that social media has both helped and hurt photography. Social media has helped photography in many ways. Starting with exposure of different photographers around the world, networking, education and technical aspects of photography. Social media has helped photographers earn a living, and has opened doors for opportunities within the photography community. Unfortunately, social media has set standards on photography, and what we consider great and bad images. For example, most people will over look a mountain scene that has a strong composition with clear blues skies, and is technically put together nicely, but yet an image that has a lack luster composition with exploding light people will flock to and give it high praise. It seems like more and more people are trying to following the trends with whatever is popular.

Whether it be post processing styles, certain locations, personal egos, and mass appeal, social media has played a major role with what and how we perceive images. I think it's ridiculous when you have photographers that post images to certain websites and they complain about a rating system, or how their image is ranked, the number of views their image has, or how many likes/favorites they have or don't get. Does this value or validate the photographers work? Probably not, but yet so many people value this system.

:: Do you find living in Las Vegas, that you ever get lumped in or compared to the other "glitz" photographers who have galleries in the big casinos? How do you deal with that aspect?

I don't find myself getting compared to the other 'big time' photographers here in Vegas that have big galleries. Those guys are catering and marketing their work to a certain audience, which are the tourists. They capture images to eventually sell prints in their gallery, again……mass appeal. That is their job. Photography isn't my main source of income, so I don't worry much about producing crowd pleasing images to sell.

:: How do you juggle family and photography? What challenges does it present, and how do you include your family in your passion?

It is hard to juggle family and photography, especially when long trips are involved. After a few days I really start to miss everyone. At the same time all of my family knows that photography is my passion. Without my camera, I'm not 'complete' as a person. Anytime I can visit a location and bring my family along, I do. If I'm traveling to remote locations, which most of them are, I won't bring them along. If Im visiting an area that has activities and other things for my family to do, then we all go. As of recent my travels have been to some pretty remote/rural areas where there isn't much for my family to do. When my son gets older, I'll start taking him out with me more often.

:: What was the best piece of advice you got while you were learning the craft?

The best piece of advice that I've received during my photography journey, was from one of my contacts, Cedric Guilleminot. This is going back over two and a half years ago, he said to me, "create your own images and not the ones other people want." He further went on to say "that your work should be a personal statement first." That has always stuck we me, and I am grateful that he shared his thoughts and insight with me. I can say that he help me find myself with photography.

:: What piece of advice would you pass on to someone trying to get started in photography?

The advice that I would give someone who is just getting started in photography, would be to shoot for yourself, and not for anyone else. I would also tell them to think outside of the box, and don't be afraid to try new things. Be patient, determined, and have fun.

David Thompson

"I like the thought of not knowing exactly what to expect when I arrive at a location...the thought of the unknown is intriguing."

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