Photographer of the Month Interview: Matt Payne | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, April 2018:   Matt Payne

We are happy to have Matt Payne 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.

:: I think the first question everyone has to address is how did you get into photography as a creative medium/outlet...and why landscape photography?

I started my journey into photography back in 2008 when I started my pursuit of climbing the highest 100 mountains in Colorado. At that time, I was shooting with a Sony DSC-828 8MP camera and using photography to document my mountain climbs as trip reports on my mountaineering website . The more I got into taking photos on those trips, the more I wanted to learn about photography and the more the trips became a dual pursuit for climbing and for landscape photography. I purchased my first DSLR in 2010 (Nikon D7000) and checked out almost every book on photography from the library that I could. One of my favorites was actually a book by David DuChemin about finding your vision through photography. I quickly clamored to learn even more and pursued a 365 project where I took a new photo each day, trying all kinds of techniques both in camera and in Photoshop. I guess you can say that photography really stuck! The further I got into it, the more I wanted to do and felt like I was limited by the gear I had, so I upgraded to the Nikon D800 and the trinity lenses (14-24, 24-70, 70-200) and learned off-camera flash so that I could provide portrait services to people to pay off my gear.

:: You've moved a bit between Colorado and Oregon...creatively how are those two communities different in terms of the landscape community...and personally what did you like about each area?

I grew up in Colorado Springs and spent most of my life in that city. That is where I lived when I first got into photography. I found the creative community in that city to be very welcoming - I found a Meetup group that was all about creative photography and through that Meetup I met some fantastic people that were willing to teach and learn from each other. After a short amount of time, I became an instructor for the group and led small workshops in night photography there. This was back when almost no one was shooting the Milky Way, so it was an exciting time to teach the skills involved in making a good astro-landscape. My wife and I decided to move to Portland, Oregon in 2013 to try something new. I found that community to also be welcoming; however, I was instantly a much smaller fish in a much larger pool of photographers. I went from being quite well-known in my community of Colorado Springs to being a no-body in Portland. I was lucky enough to meet up with Michael Bollino, Jeremy Cram, Brian Adelberg, Brian Kibbons, and Paul Bowman (all amazing photographers) at a 500px meet-up at the Horse Brass bar (amazing selection of craft brews) and they all welcomed me into their group. I think it is really important to seek out a community of photographers wherever you live so that you can learn from each other and benefit from the fellowship of landscape photography.

:: Digital Photography is becoming one of the fastest growing art forms...what do you do that you feel separates the work you do from the others? Is it important to try and make something "different" in your mind?

I have to be honest with you - I am at a point in my photography career where I don't feel like my work is as good as it could be. I am constantly striving to improve my techniques through critique and through learning from others. I think right now the only thing that distinguishes me from most other landscape photographers is that I pursue very unique compositions and locations in very hard to reach places such as high mountains here in Colorado. Recently I was on a Fall Colors photography trip near Ridgway, Colorado and I found myself alone on this hard to reach mesa above Silver Jack Reservoir. I had never seen another photograph from that location before and it was incredibly satisfying to photograph sunset up there all by myself while hoards of photographers were 2,000 ft. below on the dirt road all getting the same shot. While my photographs are not easily marketable to the masses due to fact that they are not from places most people have been before, I get a great deal of personal satisfaction knowing that I have created something different.

:: What inspired you to create the podcast? What challenges has this medium given you creatively and how do you approach the planning of each episode? How much research goes into a guest, or do you just let the conversation develop as you speak to them?

When I first got into landscape photography in 2010, I really wanted to learn as much as possible about the craft from as many artists as possible. I immediately looked to the podcast arena for some interesting podcasts on photography, but never found one that was specific to landscape photography. I felt like it was a niche that was missing a great deal of content and discussion. As the years went by, I really enjoyed the in-person conversations I'd had with other landscape photographers while we were out shooting together. The conversations were rich, vibrant, and touched on subjects I rarely found intelligent discussion about on the internet. Fast forward to 2017, I decided to finally launch my own podcast so that I could have similar conversations with the best landscape photographers across the world and share those conversations with the rest of my peers. It has been quite the journey so far! Having never done a podcast before, it was quite a steep learning curve at first. I have been able to develop my workflow so that it takes about 5 hours per episode to produce and publish, not including the time it takes to recruit and actually record the podcast. The podcast is completely unscripted except for a couple of questions I ask every guest. I try to do about an hour of research on each guest before we record so that I can determine the best topics to cover. Since the podcast is not in person, I don't have the non-verbal cues available in a normal conversation, so it is quite the tricky bit to keep the conversation flowing without preventing my guests from not going deep enough. I'm really trying to get better at letting my guests control more of the conversation and I feel like the podcast has gotten better over time.

:: Gear or post-processing which topic gets you the most amped up to talk about on your podcast? A few of your episodes have gotten a some heated feedback and discussions going you try to find topics to generate discussion post-podcast?

I definitely have always enjoyed conversations about both gear and post-processing; however, the topic of post-processing is one that generates the most excitement in my mind due to how many different variables are tied up in it - ego, artistry, ethics, motivation, business, authenticity, etc. I think the beauty of the podcast format is that an intelligent conversation can be facilitated without all of the internet-style emotional outbursts that we often see when a controversial topic is put out there. I certainly hope the podcast has and will continue to generate discussion post-podcast as I think it is critical for us all to have these conversations in a friendly and constructive way.

:: I sense a rift in the landscape photography community..mostly centered around the world of post-processing styles...but this quickly bleeds out into other aspects of the professions, in terms of prints, workshops, stewardship of land, ego, etc. I feel like we're heading towards some unpleasant times....which I also find hilarious, because in the grand scheme of art Landscape photography is a small, and minor part of the do you feel about this kind of online banter?

I am certainly not going to lie - I really enjoy seeing all of the conversation that is generated around some of these topics. My only wish would be that people take a deep breath before they start typing and really think long and hard about what they want to say and what impact their comments may or may not have on the community and the craft of landscape photography in general. That's what's fascinating about the podcast, isn't it? That it forces us to re-think things and re-evaluate our own belief systems. Through the podcast, I personally have had my mind changed on several topics that I held deeply rooted convictions on. It has caused me to re-think some of my own behaviors, both in the field and in front of the computer. I agree with you that it is kind of hilarious that we are all so wound up over some of these issues; however, I think that's whats great about the community we find ourselves in - there's no shortage of topics to help stimulate our minds. Lastly, I think I'd challenge your assertion that some of these topics are minor. I think landscape photography can and does play a significant role in some important issues such as conservation and outdoor ethics.

:: Social does it play a part in how you run your photography? How much importance do you put on sharing work, instagram stories, and all the other aspects of what seems to be required to move ahead in this industry. Do you think social media is a positive for what we do?

I was an early adopter of social media, despite what my small Facebook fan count says! :-) I think that social media is a very sharp double edged sword, and I've written on that topic numerous times. I feel as though social media is a necessary evil if you are looking to make any money off of your photography these days, especially if you plan to sell prints or lead workshops. I think the unfortunate impact of social media is that it has really encouraged some photographers, including myself, to do things you might not normally do in order to get noticed. For example, I can think of times when I really wanted to get a new post up, but had not shot recently, so I processed an image and dropped a Milky Way into the scene to really make it stand out. We have people digitally manipulating photographs (myself included) and making locations look more incredible than they actually are. While this is incredible in terms of artistic expression, it leaves me worrying about the future of our craft. People not knowing any better will flock to these locations thinking the Milky Way is visible there, only to find that the Milky Way only appears in the opposite direction. People will go look at a mountain scene only to realize that someone has digitally made the mountain look bigger than it actually is. While I applaud the skill and artistic craft that many photographers employ today, I worry that we are collectively sacrificing the future to exploit our selfish gains of today. I am by no means suggesting that we all become purists and only shoot film. I think a middle ground can be reached that both celebrates the artistry of the many talented photographers that exist today, and fosters and perpetuates public trust in the authenticity of our craft and protection of our beloved locations. Before the podcast, I was a strong proponent that photographers should just do whatever they want and that people should only care about their own work and not what people think. While this "feels good," it is a dangerous game to play by which we are actively auctioning future trust in the art form for more personal success today. I know that by hosting the podcast, I have become a more enlightened photographer, not only technically, but also ethically.

:: What is you favorite piece of non related photography gear and why?

I would have to say that it would be my Osprey Exos 48 backpack - which is my primary backpacking pack for long journeys into the Colorado high country.

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

The scariest thing that has happened to me while shooting is probably from a 5-day backpacking trip I did in 2013. I planned to climb some 13,000+ peaks near my current town of Durango, Colorado. My friend Jeremy and I backpacked up a very steep trail about 8 miles with all of my photography gear and all of his climbing gear (ropes, etc). When we arrived at the upper basin known as No Name Basin, it started raining. We were planning to use that basin as a base camp to climb the areas peaks, so we set up camp about 50 feet away from a very small stream. The rain never quit and kept going on 4 days straight - it turned out that a 150-year storm came into Colorado and we just happened to pick that time to be on our backpacking trip. The governor actually declared an emergency in several counties. Long story short, that small stream we camped near kept rising each day and by the end of our 4th day, it had reached our tent. We decided to pack up and head down. We were both worried that the water levels would be too high to cross the many small streams we had to cross to get down, and we were worried that the train that you have to take would not be running. We came to a spot in the trail that crossed one of the small streams that we needed to get across. On our way up before the rain storm this stream was about ankle deep and easily navigated. On our way down, it was raging with trees and debris flowing by and was about hip-deep. Having $10,000 of photography gear on me, I was really worried that I was going to lose all of my gear in the river. We were able to use our climbing rope to navigate across the stream safely; however, I don't recall ever being so scared in all my life. It was quite a disappointing trip, but one I will never forget.

:: Night shooting is a large part of what you work on...what is it about it that you find artistically motivating? Of all forms of landscape shooting, I think it has the biggest quality limitations in terms of camera do you deal with some of these issues when you photograph?

I have always been fascinated by and drawn to gazing at the night sky. When I was a child, my parents were very poor so we never went on vacations; however, we did go camping almost every weekend and I always remember loving sleeping out under the stars watching the meteors and satellites pass by - so, I've always had a special place in my heart for the dark night skies. In terms of what about shooting at night I find artistically motivating - I really find night photography to be the ultimate creative challenge, not only in camera but also in post. There are so many fun challenges to overcome including finding a good composition, figuring out the right settings, pushing your gear to the absolute maximum, and all while in the dark! I think it is quite amazing that we now have the equipment to be able to showcase the night sky in all its glory. In terms of dealing with quality limitations, I have had to learn how to minimize those using various techniques in the field. I really enjoy taking super long exposures of the foreground at a low ISO that can be coupled with a much higher ISO image of the night sky. This creates the most pleasing combination and provides the greatest amount of challenge to the artist.

:: You're quite accomplished in mountain climbing as well..what do you find recharges your battery more a good climb or a good shoot? What feels better climbing a peak or getting a great image in the camera? It seems there's a bit of an adrenaline rush involved with both that something you feel you chase?

Oh man - this question really gets at my inner conflicts! I find it excruciatingly difficult to do both mountain climbing and landscape photography well while in the field. While the two activities are an excellent combination in terms of getting you to very amazing places, it is really hard to get great photographs without sacrificing time and energy needed to complete a climb before weather sets in. I think that over the years my motivation for climbing mountains has shifted further into wanting to get better photographs and I can see myself eventually not really needing to reach the summit as long as I am able to get a great photograph that I have planned and executed. I think ultimately the climb still charges my battery more though, especially a climb that involves a great deal of effort to complete, such as one I did last summer called Jagged Mountain. I certainly do feel that I chase both the epic photographs as well as the mountain summits equally and hope to be able to keep doing both for many years to come.

:: Where do you think this profession is headed in the next 10-15 years? Is the landscape arena going to be too overly saturated? Will Instagram and social media throw so many beautiful landscapes at us that we become desensitized to natural beauty? Will it level out with just those who can run a business being left in the field?

This is such an interesting set of questions. I think we have already reached a level of saturation that is bad for business. There is so much noise online now, both on social media and in general, that is has become nearly impossible to differentiate yourself as a newer artist without being on the fringes of what is considered digital art. Every day, I see new artists pushing the medium further and further into areas that greatly exceed any possible reality. We see photographers blending in Milky Ways into scenes where the Milky Way is literally never visible. We see them using the same astro-tracked Milky Way layer as the foundation of every single one of their images. We see people digitally dropping in people into scenes where people were not present. The online arms race to be noticed is forcing people to do some pretty silly stuff, and I think a lot of people are getting tired of it. I have personally heard accounts of long-time photographers up and quitting the craft because they feel there is no way to compete without being completely inauthentic. While some of this is hyperbole, I do believe that it is ultimately not good for the craft and will only serve to backfire later. The general public has almost no trust in landscape photography anymore. Where I do see landscape photography being a positive force is in outdoor education and in the generation of enthusiasm to preserve the natural world. Established photographers have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to provide their listeners and consumers with a hearty appreciation of the natural world and to provide them with the knowledge to help keep it that way. Now more than ever, landscape photographers are in a strategic position to inform ethics and facilitate stewardship. Photographers that can set themselves apart in this fashion will be the most successful ones and we will all look back on them and remember how amazing they were.

:: What was the best piece of advice you discovered in your quest to learn photography and what was one thing in looking back that you wish you hadn't invested so much energy on?

The best piece of advice I have discovered is to surround yourself with very talented people that you greatly admire and don't be afraid to ask them for their opinion on your work. Pay attention to what they do in the field and see if you can learn something new each time you go out. I feel like getting direct feedback from those people is one of the best ways you can improve as a photographer. I wish I had not invested so much energy on obtaining the best lenses possible. It turned out that these were also the most heavy lenses, which I often found myself leaving at home on long backpacking trips.

:: What excites you the most about the future of photography? What do you find the most troubling?

What excites me the most about the future of photography is that there are so many talented photographers out there today that it has become very easy to find someone to learn from. The guests on my podcast have each taught me something new each episode and I feel like we now have the technology at our fingertips to gain access to such amazing inspiration and information. It is almost overwhelming! What I find the most troubling about photography is that there are so many people competing for very limited resources, including locations and financial support of the art-form. It has become very difficult to monetize photography in any substantial way, which has only been made even more difficult with the proliferation and acceptance of fake images and gimmicky post-processing techniques. With each passing day, the value of the photograph continues to decrease while the demand for even more spectacular imagery increases. It is quite a strange race to the bottom. I hope to see the motivation of photographers take another approach, to make their art have meaning and purpose beyond the amazement of their Instagram following.

:: What do you have planned creatively that excites you in 2018?

I have a lot of really great trips planned for this year, including my maiden voyage to Iceland. I know that Iceland has been photographed to death, but I am personally excited to go there for the first time, especially to see the aurora (hopefully). I'm also going to try to do a portrait project coupled with interviews here in my local community to showcase ordinary life in a Colorado mountain town. Lastly, I'm hoping to finish my quest to complete the highest 100 mountains in Colorado and come away with some great images along the way. Thanks for the interview - it has been really fun responding to these great questions!

Matt Payne

"... surround yourself with very talented people that you greatly admire and don't be afraid to ask them for their opinion on your work. Pay attention to what they do in the field and see if you can learn something new each time you go out..."

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