Photographer of the Month Interview: Joe Azure | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, February 2014:   Joe Azure

We want to thank our featured guest photographer this month, Joe Azure! We appreciate his time and effort to answer our questions, and to share some of his incredibly beautiful work with us! Please visit his links to see more of his inspiring work, and to let him know you enjoyed this interview.

:: Growing up in Sitka, Alaska, were there many options for photography, or was it something you developed later in life? And have you ever had the thought, "Damn, if I knew then what I know now I could have a shot of that!"?

Photography took root later in life. There was an interest back in college, but no time or motivation to really do it. I even went so far as to take some darkroom-based photography classes after college, but never really 'got it.'

Looking back there are so many time where I wish I could have captured what I had seen. In fact, the deciding moment for me to dive into photography and really learn what I was doing occurred while I was home visiting my parents a few years ago. I had my Rebel XTi with a 75-300mm zoom lens with me while walking along one of the dirt roads in the neighborhood. I happened upon a big coastal brown bear who was standing on his hind legs looking over the bushes at another bear and her 3 cubs playing in the river. Of course I took some pictures and hoped for the best. But when I looked at the images later, I knew that they were not anything special, and decided at that point it was time to learn.

:: Was going from a SMALL town in Alaska to a HUGE one in San Francisco a difficult adjustment for you? How does someone who tries to see things with a camera adjust from solitude to bustle in terms of finding meaningful work?

My transition from an island in Alaska, to the SF Bay Area occurred in a single day. My father and I flew down to San Jose the night before my freshman orientation began at Stanford University in Palo Alto. The transition was not a hard one given that a college campus if often a bit of an island, I guess this is understandable.

The hustle and bustle of a big city is not my favorite thing though. I need things like silence, space and time inside of my own head. Photography has been great for encouraging me to find the times and places that provide for these needs. Waking up before the sun (and most of the city), walking along the shoreline as sun rises and the city wakes up …. nothing better!

:: Talk a little about your development as a photographer; I know we had some part in sinking the photography hook, but what impressed me was that you took what we taught, and then practiced ALL THE TIME. What kinds of things would you set out to accomplish in your practice?

First of all, Aperture Academy, and more specifically the instructors at my first workshop, played a huge role in my progression as a photographer. Growing up I had artistic tendencies, and had even taken an interest in photography shorty after college. This was in the day of the .5 megapixel camera and pretty much all photography education was darkroom-based. I tried... I honestly did … but I never really "got it". All of the other stuff that it took, to make an image you could view, got in the way of me understanding the very basic mechanics of using a camera. During that workshop, while explaining the use of a graduated neutral density filter, something in my mind connected the dots in a way that let me finally get past that. Balancing the light and exposing the scene so that it can be captured in the camera … a huge revelation for some reason. it allowed me to move on to composition, processing, observing … and lots of practicing.

I am a big believer in practicing anything I do, and photography is no exception. Although I might add that the term practice in this case may not be the best. For me, practice means doing it with a lot of focus, and as you mentioned, doing it often. In some cases, I will go out with a new piece of equipment, say a panoramic tripod head or intervalometer, and make sure that I know how to use it effectively, so that when I really need it for that epic (and fleeting) light, I am confident that I can execute.

Post-processing … you have to practice this as well. I read a lot about it, utilize video tutorials, and work at it constantly.

But the technical practice is not as important as practicing how I see. I will often head out to familiar locations, but at different times to learn more about the light and weather differences, or change to a different lens and force myself to work only with that one focal length. As some say, composition is king, and the light is everything.

:: You have become the "Bridge Guy" in terms of shooting the Golden Gate Bridge…what about that bridge drew you in for photography, and what keeps you coming back to shoot so often?

The bridge is ever-present living in San Francisco. It can be seen from many locations, everybody loves it, and people come from around the world to see it … oh yeah, and it's a very beautiful structure. In addition to these aspects, I find myself drawn to the many opportunities and challenges that the bridge provides.

:: What challenges do you find with photographing something SO iconic?

The weather is always different, the light is constantly changing, the locations from which to shoot often require work to find and get to, and it has been photographed by thousands of amazing photographers. I love these challenges and the opportunities that they provide in pushing myself to create compelling images.

:: You've been fortunate enough to see some remarkable places in your travels, which has been your favorite to photograph and why?

I am not sure I can say that I have a favorite place yet. I will say that the place that I resonate the most with so far has been Iceland. Not any particular place in Iceland either - the whole country feels like home even though I have no idea what anybody is saying.

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

My computer without a doubt. When I think about photography, and the skills that it takes to create images today, I think about a table with 4 legs . You have to be able to 1) Operate your camera, 2) Expose the scene properly, 3) Compose (decide what goes into the picture), and 4) Post-process. That last one is all about the computer!

:: What is one location you're really looking forward to photographing in the future? What is it about that location that is calling you?

Without a doubt, my home of Alaska is calling me. One of the main reasons I decided to focus my efforts on the art of photography, is that I wanted to be able to go back home and be able to hopefully capture some the raw beauty, power, and majesty of Southeast Alaska. The desire to develop my vision and skills has always been present by the desire to go home and share it with the world.

:: What problems do you see facing photography as a medium in the years to come?

Good question. As a medium (not as a business … that is another question), I think that photography in the years to come will be great. Technology just keeps getting better and cheaper, making photography accessible to a greater number of people. That can only be a good thing for the art and craft of photography.

:: What has been the scariest thing that has happened to you while out shooting?

Not sure … gotta think. Horse Boogers? yeah - got nothing beyond vertigo at Dettifoss.

:: What advice would you give someone trying to get his or her start in photography?

  1. Practice …. but practice with purpose. Swing for the fences every time you shoot.
  2. Find a muse … it might be a person, a dog, a bridge, a color, an aspect ratio. You don't have to limit yourself to that, but having a constant idea of focus to work with can be beneficial to your development as a photographer.
  3. Show people your results. Post it, read the comments, talk about it, encourage criticism. Take it all with a grain of salt and go out and shoot some more.

:: If you could only shoot with one lens for the next year, which lens would it be and why?

The 70-200mm. That might sound crazy coming from somebody who primarily shoots landscape/seascape images with a wide angle lens, but deciding what I WON'T include in my composition is a big deal. When I need to capture a big wide scene, using the appropriate tools, it is often possible to use multiple images to capture it the way I want to.

:: When you arrive at a location, walk me through the process of how you set up your shot. What do you look for?

When I arrive at a location, my routine is pretty relaxed. If I have enough time, I will usually walk around (with my gear still packed) looking at the scenery and either search for compositions I may be familiar with or look for new ones. I might be lying on the ground or crawling up to high points as I search for what I think may be interesting compositions.

I like to have several options in mind so that when the light gets good I have a selection of ideas with which to work. This can be very handy because sometimes the direction of light or clouds may mean some compositions will not be very interesting, or if they all are, the outing can be as productive as possible.

When setting up individual shots, I find that I am one of those photographers that really believes that "composition is king." That does not mean that I think I always make the best choices about composition, but it is always at the forefront of my thought process. When I study compositions, I am pretty fluid and organic. I don't try to stick to any rules, instead I look at things and try to frame what feels natural. I take plenty of test shots, look at them and evaluate the compositions while I am scouting around. When the light gets good, I like to be able to move from shot to shot efficiently if possible.

That said - there are plenty of times that I get to a place and just start shooting - going with the flow. Either way, when I get back to the computer and review my images, I take plenty of mental notes about what I like and don't like.

:: You've done a lot of work in the tech industry, how have you been able to juggle work with photography?

Sunsets and sunrise at this latitude are such that it is possible to shoot one or both on any given day, so I do as often as I can. Something that is a challenge is finding time to post-process. After spending all day on a computer, I often don't feel like doing it when I come home in the evening. As with anything though, learning how to balance activities and interests is one of the most important things to figure out and do. I know that if I want to keep doing this, I can't forget about my other responsibilities... like letting the dog out, spending time with important people, or fulfilling my other work obligations.

:: What was the best day in terms of photography for you? What was the worst?

Cheesy answer: Best day - all of them

Worst day - Perhaps the day that my camera went under water while shooting … the camera survived, but at the time I did not have a backup, and I really did not want to have to buy another camera. At least I got a nice abstract image from underwater.

:: Are there any new projects or photography related things we can find you working on these days?

You mean besides taking pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge? I've recently started learning how to print my images myself. It has been very fulfilling, and I am learning a lot about many things in the process. I know other people say it all of the time, but there really is something different about seeing a "hard copy" of your work, as opposed to on the computer screen. I highly recommend it to everyone!

Joe Azure

"Aperture Academy, and more specifically the instructors at my first workshop, played a huge role in my progression as a photographer...."

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