Photographer of the Month Interview: Mark Metternich | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, January 2015:   Mark Metternich

Our thanks to Mark Metternich, our first featured guest photographer for 2015! We appreciate his taking his time to share his thoughts, experiences and some of his beautiful fine art photography 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, and how did having a father who was an active mountaineer help to shape that path?

My start happened about 13 years ago when I was in a car accident. I was injured and received a monthly disability check for about six months. During that time my dad had surprised me with my first digital point and shoot, and my father-in-law with Photoshop all in one week! That combined with my love for nature ignited my passion for photography. My dad really deserves much of the credit here; he was a world class alpine Mountaineer and is still climbing world class mountains solo, at 77 years old! His reputation is legendary in the Northwest with well over 200 major summits all over the world.

Throughout my childhood, as little as I remember he had me out in the mountains and he was always pointing beautiful things out to me. He taught me to look very carefully at the beauty of our surroundings and also about the critical spiritual connection creation has to our lives. It also helped that he was an amateur photographer. I was immersed in nature early on in life and have a profound respect for the outdoors.

:: Was your learning process with the camera trial and error, or did you take classes? How did you progress with the skill set needed to work with this medium?

Definitely trial and error! I received my first camera in the hospital, at the age of 10 when getting my tonsils out. As soon as I was out of the hospital I was taking pictures of mountains! I still have those first black and white images posted on my wall behind my computer monitor.

Throughout my teens, I had various cameras, mostly point and shoots and one Canon SLR, but I just did it for fun and had no clue what I was doing. But in 2003 I bought my first DSLR, the Canon 10D, I could not put my camera down. I read the entire manual in one day at a campsite at Glacier National Park, and I the first thing I did was join an online photography forum to begin asking many questions. Anyone who remembers me in those days knows I was more than ambitious and passionate to learn! I was a sponge, soaking in all the information I could, and eventually moved on to more advanced forums with extremely knowledgeable masters of the photography world.

:: When I think of your work, what stands out the most for me are some of the different angles of popular Oregon waterfalls you're able to get. Can you describe a little of the process that you use to find these angles, and maybe a story of a time or two where your visual ideas were far more difficult to put into reality than you expected?

Thank you very much for the compliment. I have always thrived on, and been excited about, the idea of originality. I have found over the years during my time as a photographer a general lack of originality, and few pioneering photographers. I really wanted to try to do new things and explore new areas; I've always been one to go against the grain, and I think that has a lot to do with the way I was raised and the not so typical outings I had growing up. I was climbing and scrambling up and down mountains, backcountry hiking and camping… I think I just had a moderately radical mindset instilled by me from my dad. I often go to these places and look for ways to figure out what hasn't been done before, or try to find places where people rarely go.

For instance, I had been intrigued about Metlako Falls for a some time. It is so epic yet socked in by virtually impenetrable cliffs. I knew a handful of people that had been in there, mainly in summer at really low water levels, and also some extreme kayakers I knew had gone off it (I studied their head cam footage for my attempts) and I wanted to be the first to get the shot. But, my first three years of multi-attempts were failures. I came up with some extreme ideas of how to get in, but they just would not work for various reasons. In the spring of 2012, my luck changed, I finally found a way to get in with relatively high river levels. It was a pure adrenaline rush! You really cannot imagine how massive Metlako Falls is until you are directly in the bowl looking up at the grandeur of such a waterfall. So, admittedly I fail all the time, I just keep moving forward in my life and keep a positive attitude. I think that might come from being raised by a hard core Marine.

:: In previous interviews you mention that you were given the advice "never shoot for photographers." How does this advice help you with how you approach a scene to shoot it? I'm also curious, knowing the public tends to purchase more of the traditional iconic shots, how it plays a part in the creativity and originality of making an image?

Wow, man, you have done some research! LOL. I think I may need to clarify a bit--the way I see it, and in my own business model, I really have two markets. Photographers, because I lead a wide variety of adventure photography workshops full time, all year long. Then there is the other market of print sales to the mass market. During that time I was taking my business in another direction. I was solely going after being a successful gallery photographer. Once the economic recession hit the US hard some years back, I went through some substantial financial losses. So, I began to adjust my business model and focus more on workshop/tours, selling my post production Video Tutorials, teaching post production via Skype, and other things related to education and the service to photographers.

I found that I really loved leading and teaching people and being available to them, to help them grow in their own photography goals. Today, I feel it is almost a calling of sorts. So, now I find myself photographing for myself number one ("don't shoot for photographers"), but I do often have photographers in mind because the epic, "wow factor" kinds of shots help promote my workshops. The person who gave me that piece of advice was a great friend, Ken Duncan from Australia who has been a tremendously successful landscape galley photographer. If you want to be successful at galleries, generally speaking you don't want to shoot for photographers. They are not your market.

:: How would you describe your social media marketing techniques, and how do you work to use this platform successfully?

Well, to be honest, I am a photographer who is learning to be a businessman. I remember the actor Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson saying in an interview that he was 'saddling up for a tremendous amount of publicity' since the movie he was in was now finished. The article described his work ethic as literally inspiring Hollywood and even legendary, that struck a chord with me in a big way. I honestly love and thrive on hard work. My biggest struggle in life, in some ways, is learning to be lazy once in a while. As professionals when our photos are done, it doesn't mean we wrap it up and call it a day! It has just begun! We have to get those photos (and our services) out to the people who will most benefit from them! That is where a lot of artists fail.

I simply get behind my computer and put in really long hard hours putting the work out there and keeping up with massive amounts of communications. The market is always evolving and changing and part of the work is trying to stay up with where it is all going. Then, to have a photo like "Light Show" go viral, and you are up to your neck in communications for a week, 18+ hours a day! I have no admin or help, so it is challenging, especially because I lead workshops and do my own personal shooting upwards to 250 days a year now. I am by no means complaining as life has been very good to me, and I love what I do!!

:: You said you've been at this long enough that people are starting to call you a "legend." In this business, what does that mean, and what do you think you did to achieve this status?

LOL. That one really makes me laugh! I have no idea. Well, to be honest when people started calling me that a few years back, I had no idea how to respond. It stunned me. I kept thinking to myself, Legend? I am only just getting started at this! What are they going to say 10, 20, 30, 40 years from now? I think it might be rooted in the fact that I have stayed steady in my growth over the last 12 years in the face of a lot of setbacks, discouragements, and sometimes discouraging people. I can't help it, I am a fighter pure and simple. I have never wanted spectacular overnight-like success. I think when that happens it often is lost just as easily.

As the years go by I see people come and go in this industry but I keep saying to myself, I am still here! I'm still moving forward, I am still improving, I am still learning, I am still passionate, I still love my work immensely, I still never want to get set in my ways!

I do not know, but maybe some of that, over time has been picked up by some of those who follow my work.

:: You also do a number of post-processing videos. What do you think separates your videos from the other post-processing technique videos out there? Secondly, how do you avoid creating a bunch of people who are copying your style, and not seeking to create their own?

I think what might separate my post production video tutorials from the pack is that I have put in 13 very intensive years learning everything I can related to nature photography digital workflow, as well as printing and color management and have that sort of detail oriented kind of mind needed to be a great teacher. I also strike a balance between the too heady intellectual that can know everything but not do a whole lot, and the pure artist who can do wonders but does not know much or can't teach very well. I have always been told ever since I was in my teens, that I was a naturally good teacher, for years I thought about doing that in the school system. Well, I do teach, just not the way I was thinking about back then.

A lot of it is working very hard, doing the research, testing things out to see what works and what does not, and then being able to simplify it to make it understandable and easy to teach to others. I've been in these very same students shoes, I am sensitive to the student. People tell me all the time, I am good at that. I have had tremendous positive feedback on my videos, as well as the hundreds of students I have taught and clients I have guided in the field. I will never stop teaching, it comes second nature and I have a passion to share.

As far as avoiding creating a bunch of people who are copying your style and not seeking to create their own… I am friends with and have talked to a lot of prominent established photographers out there who teach, and I believe we are in agreement that we simply teach tools. What one person will do with a tool compared to another will vary, and often immensely. So as a teacher we have to learn everything, but then we need to find what works best for our goals. From there, we share these things with others, but they too will have their own vision and they will figure out what will work best for them, we just help this process along. The feedback this year from literally hundreds of people has been amazing to me, I cannot tell you how much gratitude I feel when I know I have really helped someone in a way that makes a difference.

:: This question kind of bookends the last question. When you teach workshops, and strive to teach people originality and creativity, how do you approach them when you are all in the same location?

You have to be very flexible, relational, and people oriented! I give out a fairly rigorous questionnaire to all my clients, and I talk to them in person, Skype, or by phone, well before we ever do the workshop. I want to know how I can be the very best I can, to truly help them. I tune myself into their needs and their desires for the trip! I take what I learn and mold the workshop and teaching into what is going to help them the most and make the experience the most pleasant for them. A linear approach would never be the most effective in this work!

Generally, we take people out and teach all along the way, as well as learn from the clients. When doing my workshops, I teach people a little about the area, and then I give my general thoughts, and maybe a demonstration. Some may want to shoot their own way, others may want to shoot a lot like I do (after all, my clients are attracted to my work) or something in between. I have a variety of photographers, some from very beginners to more advanced. I just give them what they want or need to the very best of my abilities. I ask. I listen.

So far, I have had over 80% of my clients continue on with future workshops and the feedback they all have given me has been nothing short of awesome. I have had many clients tell me they have done every workshop under the sun, from many of the top names and mine has been their favorite. I have been told over and over that I have been the most generous with my giving and service. That is a huge compliment to me and I take that very seriously. It humbles me and makes me want to be even better. That is what I do, I work very hard each year to improve and learn from any mistakes I may have made.

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

That is easy, my guitar! Many people do not know that I am a Flamenco guitarist and every second I am not working on photography, I am usually playing my guitar! I even carry a full size guitar with me on the road, and attach it to my backpack and carry the extra weight every chance I get. In fact I have always said that if I had not become a photographer, I would have done music and never looked back! I love photography and music equally, so sometimes I feel divided. But as hard as it is to make a living at art you really have to pick one main passion, so photography it is, and my guitar chops suffer because of it!

:: What is the scariest thing that has happened to you on a shoot?

That is a hard one to answer because I have had a lot of scary things happen over the last 13 years of shooting! I have taken falls while rock climbing to new places in the Columbia River Gorge, I have almost gotten swept away in rapids, I have had bears charge both myself and my assistants then bluff at the last minute, I have nearly lost control of my vehicle on dark icy mountain passes at nighttime, I have nearly been bit my snakes, I have stepped into quicksand, I have walked up on packs of wolves, I even crashed my four wheel drive into the ocean (don't even ask me how that happened)!

What might be the most frightening moment was the lightning storm that descended on me like the arrows of the Persian Empire did on the Spartans of 300, with all her fury at Crater Lake this last summer. Even without a lightning trigger, one night I got over 50 strikes recorded on my camera at sunset. Then when the show was over, suddenly the storm, which was moderately far away and moving in the other direction, turned, and the wind began to hit me and I began to smell the strong scent of ozone. I immediately left my moderately high position in a full sprint (with all my gear), and in about the duration of a minute, lightning was striking all over the place! At one point I laid down with my ears plugged, face down, wondering if this was going to be the end! Thank God I got out ok, and with some great shots!

I will say that every time I have had a close call, I ALWAYS, learn everything I can from it, so that I NEVER make the same mistake twice! The fall I took in the Gorge was pretty serious, but 30 minutes later I climbed back up to where I had been so I could figure out what I had done wrong. Once I got back up, I figured out that I had broken the '3-point stance' rule in rock climbing, when reaching out to take the shot. I put all my weight onto what I had believed was strong enough to hold me. Well, that was a stupid rookie mistake that almost cost me my life. Some may think it was crazy for me to climb back up there, but it was not a very hard climb. And the fact that I figured out my error has made me almost obsessive about a 3-point stance today when doing any kind of climbing around heights.

:: What do you think are the bright spots for photography in the next several years, and where do you think the medium is heading? What scares you about the future of the medium?

Bright spots to me are gear, and all the technological advances we benefit so much from! I think we are literally spoiled with great gear and technology, yet everything just keeps getting better. Also, the competition for great work is always getting better. All that great work out there always inspires me! I just love watching all these new photographers from everywhere coming up, pushing the boundaries and breaking out of their shells, that the older generation sometimes gets settled in. I used to be inspired by just a handful of core photographers. I still am inspired by them, but now I am inspired by an ever growing list of people doing very nice work! The list just keeps growing and their work often puts a fire in my belly! I find inspiration to be very valuable in life, so I have gratitude for all that.

I don't think anything scares me about the future of the medium. I don't like to be the type to dwell on the negative or allow other people's fears to affect me. I just want to continue to have fun, and stay positive no matter what happens in my future. I love my life, and intend on staying that way. I will say that I do not like how our work seems to be cheapened by the easy access to so much imagery these days. A photographer can pay the literal price, of nearly life and limb to get an amazing photo of a lifetime and then online people click on it, view it less than a second, and think 'that's cool,' and then go on to the next. People don't seem to look nearly as carefully as they used to. And sometimes I don't like that because, I believe more subtle work to be just as valid as the in fad, hyper 'wow factor' type of photos. But I also believe if we work very hard at we do, with integrity there will always be a market.

:: You also do a lot of work with the printed medium. What challenges do you find replicating what you see on a screen and what comes out of the printer, and what do you recommend amateur printers do to improve this skill?

There are large challenges! I think people serious about print making should consider getting my two excellent videos on the subject: Mastering Fine Art Printing and Color Management, and The Ultimate Sharpening Workflow for Fine Art Printing. Two of the best resources on the market for the serious print maker. I have had the great privilege over the years of working exceedingly hard at literally mastering fine art printmaking as well as working with a lot of big name fine art gallery photographers, producing their work. A lot of the really big names stay confidential because they don't want others to know that they don't actually process their own work.

By filling up galleries over the years, as well as my obsessive attention to detail in my own fine art prints, I have had the privilege of mastering these processes. To tell you the truth, this is one of my very favorite aspects to photography. Producing a huge fine art master quality print, is just awesome to me. But your initial question would require a small pamphlet of information, so I really don't know how to respond to it in short, I literally have a waiting list of people who want me to teach this to them. But because it takes several hours, these days I just tell people to get the videos because I share everything there. I hold nothing back. I will say that I have yet to have one negative comment about those videos, and quite a while ago I quit posting all the raving feedback I get on my website, because it seemed like it was just getting to be sort of overkill.

Technique-wise, it really comes down to mastering non destructive workflow, preventing artifacting, calibrating carefully specifically for print (different than web), profiling meticulously even from the raw file for some, upsizing with the very best algorithms, wise choice of resolution, and then totally mastering a multi approach sharpening protocol, and even grain simulation. Learning everything related to this has been a bit of an obsession for me, and I just love it when people tell me how awesome their prints are turning out because I helped them.

:: Lastly, what plans do you have in store for 2015 that you're excited about?

I am very excited about taking everything I am doing to the next level this year. With the advancement of communication technology I rarely have to be home anymore. If my goals are realized in 2015, I will be away from home leading workshops, shooting and doing all my other work nearly 300 days. I know this level of lifestyle is not possible or even desired for many, but for me it is my life and I intend on embracing, sharing and enjoying it to the fullest.

The other thing I am very excited about is my partnering up with a couple of great photographers to do some new and exciting workshops. In late January I am partnering up with 'the Man, the Myth, the Legend' (that is what I call him) Ryan Dyar, whom I greatly respect, for a Winter Wonderland Workshop at Mt. Hood. Then in April, I get the awesome privilege to partner up with Greg Boratyn to do our Epic Autumn Patagonia workshop! As I do this interview with you, months out, I am already very excited to go! So life is good at the moment, and I have profound gratitude. Anyone interested in the mentioned services can find everything at

Thank you very much Brian, for the opportunity to be interviewed.

Mark Metternich

"Many people do not know that I am a Flamenco guitarist and every second I am not working on photography, I am usually playing my guitar! I even carry a full size guitar with me on the road...."

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