Photographer of the Month Interview: Zack Schnepf | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, July 2015:   Zack Schnepf

We send out our thanks to Zack Schnepf, our featured guest photographer for July 2015. We really appreciate his time, and the stunning photography he's shared 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 in photography, specifically landscape and nature photography?

Landscape photography was the what got me into photography in the first place. I grew up hiking, camping, backpacking and spending a lot of time out in nature. I would witness these incredible moments while out in nature and I was so frustrated that I could not capture and share these moments with my friends and family. I picked up my first real camera in 2003 when the the Canon 10D was announced. I knew I had a lot to learn, so I joined the Nature Photographers Network. At the time, this was the best resource to help improve my photography. It was on NPN where the members of Photo Cascade first met. I still think of those as the formative years of my photography.

:: I first remember seeing your work on Flickr about 10 years ago, back when the landscape fine art world was relatively small. How did the early days on Flickr help shape who you molded yourself into as a photographer?

Like NPN, Flickr was a great resource for me. It was a large community of photographers and there were sub groups for every type of photography. I learned a lot there and also found a lot of inspiration from other photographers who were producing high level work. It was also a great platform to help get my own work out there and build a name for myself.

:: I noticed you had a small section of work with models and such back in the day. Do you still shoot any model or portrait work, or have you moved away from the people side of things other than adventure stuff?

I used to have a photo studio in Portland with lots of fun equipment. When I first decided to choose photography as a career, I thought I had to do commercial work to make any money. It was certainly easier to make money that way, but I was not enjoying photography anymore, which defeated the point of becoming a professional photographer. I decided to focus on the photography that was fulfilling to me and hoped I would figure out a way to make a living at it. It took several years to get to a point where I could make as much as I was when doing commercial studio work and I had to work a lot harder, as well. I eventually sold all my studio equipment.

:: You seem to be posting more work on your website these days. I recall times where it would seem like it was forever before you posted a new image, now you seem to post more regularly, and I see more work that covers various times of day, and more angles. Is this maybe an effort to appeal to more clients or perhaps more free time to shoot?

One of the lessons I learned while becoming a professional is you don’t necessarily shoot more than you did when you were an “amateur.” Being out in the field and shooting is the best part, but that accounts for about 10% of the job. Most of my time was and still is spent in the office. I learned to manage my time better to allow for a more balanced schedule with more time in the field. I also have 2 kids now; the years they were born were very slow years for photography. Those are probably the years you are referring to, as I was not producing much work at all after they were born. It is still hard to find enough time to get out and shoot as much as I want to, but I have gotten a lot better over the years.

:: When it comes to process, how has your career and your perspectives on processing fine art landscapes evolved? Now that filters and Photoshop techniques seem to be far more advanced, and styles seem to be ramped up even more, where do you draw the lines, and how do you keep your own style?

That’s a great question. I think I was ahead of the curve back then when it came to processing. I was one of the first photographers I knew of experimenting with multiple exposure blending in Photoshop. I got my degree in multimedia and web design, so I actually learned to use Photoshop well before I was even photographing. When I picked up photography I already knew Photoshop pretty well. I started experimenting with blending multiple exposures to help overcome the limitations of the cameras I was using. As a result, I became known for that processing style. It helped me make a name for myself.

I approach processing the same way now as I did back then, the difference is we have so many more tools these days, and the tools we have are far more sophisticated. My approach has always been more on the artistic side, and less on the documentary side. I want to capture part of my own experience in the field, and share that experience with the viewer. I want them to feel as if they are standing there experiencing the awe and wonder first hand. This is what I think of as my style.

I try not to draw any arbitrary lines between what is or isn’t an acceptable way to process. It’s up each individual what is acceptable in their own processing. I have my own personal preferences, but I would never try to impose my preferences on someone else. I may not like the way someone processed an image, but that does’t mean the way they process is wrong, it’s just not my taste. I think as long as you are honest about what you are doing and not misleading anyone then it’s fair game.

:: Your Blazing Enchantments shot is easily one of your signature images. It’s been awhile since you took that shot, and at the time I think a lot of the processing and capturing science was in its infancy stages. Can you talk a little about how you captured that shot in the field, given how difficult the lighting is? How the processing changed with the shot over time, and about looking back now, and maybe what things you would’ve done differently in the field given a second chance?

That shot is great example, and one that pushed me to develop better techniques in the field and in my processing. As you mentioned, I’ve processed it several times over the years. It’s one of my favorites and I didn’t do it justice the first time. As my skills developed and as I learned new techniques, I would go back and revisit this image. This image started me on the path of developing my tonality control techniques. My goal was to have more control over the tonality of separate areas in an image, to create an image that captured the dynamic range that I could see with my eye. I eventually produced a video detailing these techniques. In fact I used one of the versions of this image in the video as my example. You can learn more here.

There is quite a story behind capturing that image as well. It was captured in the Enchantment Lakes Wilderness in Washington. Scott Lanz, another photographer from NPN had an extra permit and was nice enough to let me come with him on this trip. The backpack trek to get into this area is grueling, we started at first light and hiked all day. We arrived just as the sun was setting. I was exhausted, all I wanted to do was set up camp and go to bed, but I tossed my pack down, grabbed my camera and tripod and ran to to capture the sunset and do some scouting in this spectacular wilderness. I saw a ridge up ahead that promised a great view overlooking some of the alpine lakes and peaks. As I crested the ridge the view was revealed to me in spectacular fashion and it took my breath away. It is still the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. I didn’t have much time as the earth shadow was already lifting from the horizon, I got to work and captured a few images and scouted where I wanted to be for sunrise.

I hiked back to our camp spot and set up my tent in the growing darkness.

Early the next morning I peeked my head out of my tent to find the sunrise was already starting to happen. I jumped out of my sleeping bag, grabbed my gear and sprinted to get to my scouted location before the sunrise was over. I made it just in time to set up and start capturing the most beautiful sunrise in the most beautiful location I’ve ever seen. I was so overcome by the what I was witnessing I was having a hard time capturing my exposures. The spectacular light show was short lived and was over after only a few minutes.

Capturing this image and processing it later was incredibly difficult. Anytime you are shooting directly into sunrise or sunset the dynamic range is more than your camera can capture. My goal in the field is to capture all the tonal information I’ll need for processing the image later. I captured this with 3 separate exposures, although in hindsight, I wish I would have used 4 exposures. The highlights were still slightly blown out in the darkest exposure. I learned my lesson with this image and I always bracket with room to spare on each side of the histogram now. You can see the final image on my site here.

:: Where is landscape photography headed? Do you think we are headed for a reverse with processing and intensity of images in any way? Is the market for fine art landscape images too saturated? (bad joke) How have you personally tried to keep above the bar and stay original in this market?

I think landscape photography is headed in a great direction, the amount of quality work I see on a daily basis is awesome and inspiring. I think it will continue to get better as more people are learning better processing techniques and using those tools to create their own style of work. The market is getting saturated, but that pushes everyone to work harder and progress. I know my style is constantly changing. I go through phases, processing with different goals in mind. I love having the freedom to experiment and come up with different results. I continue to refine my workflow techniques and the image quality continues to go up as well. I can really see a big difference, especially in large prints.

:: I’ve noticed that in relation to a lot of photographers, you’re not as heavily involved with the social side of social media and promotion in that realm…how do you see marketing as a tool for your work, and what are the drawbacks and maybe advantages to the social media side of things?

Social media is tricky. I realize the importance, but I don’t want to devote too much time to it. I have a hard enough time managing my time. On the other hand, my good friend Sean Bagshaw is really good at maximizing social media and it has had a very positive impact on his business. I think if you can find the time it’s worth investing in social marketing. It’s up to you how much time you are willing to invest.

:: Favorite piece of non-photographic equipment is...?

Definitely my mountain bike. When I’m not photographing, working, or spending time with family and friends I’m on my bike. Unless it’s winter time and then I’m on my snowboard and my mountain bike. I live in Bend, Oregon, a playground for those who enjoy outdoor recreation year round. Mountain biking is my main passion outside of photography. I love outdoor activities that require my full undivided attention. It’s a great way to clear your mind of the noise and clutter of everyday life. This is when I’m happiest.

:: The scariest thing that has ever happened to you while on a photography shoot?

I have several good scary stories from the field, but the scariest was on a shoot on the Southern Oregon Coast. I’ll preface by saying this was the closest I’ve ever come to death and in hindsight could have been avoided. I was shooting sunset on China Beach. There is a huge cliff that jets out and divides the beach in half. At low tide you can walk through a rubble pile at the base of the cliff with no problem. I knew the tide was coming in and my time was limited. I ended up staying too long. I was walking back in the pitch black with my head lamp lighting the way. When I got to the cliff I looked out and saw some gentle waves lapping up through the rocks at the base of the cliff. I stood and watched for a minute to make sure it was safe. It looked very safe so I started to make my way over the rocks. Once I got about halfway across I heard something, it sounded like a train coming. I looked out toward the ocean and saw a wall of white water rushing at me. In a split second decision I braced myself between a huge rock on the ocean side and the cliff wall. The wave crashed into me almost knocking me loose, the wave then hit the cliff wall and hit me again from the other side. The surge of the wave forced the water way up over my head. I had two top loader camera bags that were slung over my shoulders, both were floating up over my head. After what seemed like several minutes(it was probably more like 30 seconds) the wave subsided. The first chance I got I scrambled as fast as humanly possible over the rocks to the other side just in time to miss the next monster wave. After that set of rogue waves, the seas calmed down and went back to normal, but it taught me a lesson I will never forget. The ocean is a very powerful thing and not to be toyed with. I have even more respect for the ocean now, and try to be extra cautious when I’m photographing near it.

:: I think as people progress with photography one of the things newer photographers find inspiring or helpful is knowing what challenges the experience photographer still has. What challenges you the most now with photography that maybe didn’t 5 years ago?

The creative process is always hard. I get better at it, but it still requires just as much energy now as when I first started. Particularly in the field. Finding compelling and unique compositions requires a lot of mental energy. Time management is a challenge for me as well. There are just not enough hours in a day to photograph, spend time with family and friends, do office work, mountain bike, and deal with household business. Last but not least, my kids are the greatest challenge now, they require more energy than everything else combined. I wouldn’t change it, but they are my greatest challenge.

:: How has having kids adjusted the way you work, or maybe the way you might potentially take risks when acquiring photos?

I have 2 wonderful kids, and I feel lucky to work from home so I can spend so much time with them. But, they make everything more complicated as well. It’s much harder to just take off and go photograph anytime I feel like. it’s also harder to get work done at my home office. I also manage risk differently now. The fact that I have 2 kids at home who need me is never far from my mind. I definitely think more before taking risks, I still take risks, but I’m more calculated about it. I also have no problem deciding that something is not worth the risk and finding something less dangerous to photograph. I’m a bit of a daredevil by nature, so it’s actually really good for me to have to think things through more carefully.

:: Complete this thought: If _____ happens, I’ll give up on landscape photography and just shoot weddings, or hang up the gear all together. Then explain why.

I won’t shoot weddings ever again. I would rather work in a coffee shop, bike shop, or just about anything else. Off the top of my head, there are a few things that would make me hang up my gear for good. The main one is if I lost my passion for photography. I thought maybe if I was injured, or handicapped I might stop, but I would probably still try to find a way to continue if that happened. I still love to photograph inspiring places, and capture nature's majesty. I won't stop if I can help it.

:: What advice do you find resonates most with people who ask you about how to be a professional photographer?

I usually try to explain that this job is actually much harder than most people realize, and you will almost certainly not get rich doing it, but if you have a real passion for it and work hard it is very rewarding. I think it’s important not to sugar coat it so people have a realistic idea of what is involved.

:: What are a few of your plans for 2015 that you’re excited for?

I have several photo trips planned this year, some local, some to further away places that I’ve never been. I have a few photo trips I’ll be taking with some of my good friends in the Photo Cascade group as well, those trips are always so much fun. I have several art shows that I’ll be doing too. I also have lots of mountain bike trips, camping trips with family and other fun recreational activities planned as well. This week is no different. I’ll be snowboarding with my wife tomorrow, riding my mountain bike later this week and photographing this week as well. Never a dull moment

Zack Schnepf

"My approach has always been more on the artistic side, and less on the documentary side. I want to capture part of my own experience in the field, and share that experience with the viewer. I want them to feel as if they are standing there experiencing the awe and wonder first hand."

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