Photographer of the Month Interview: Nicolaus Wegner | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, March 2014:   Nicolaus Wegner

Our sincere thanks to Nicolaus Wegner, our featured guest photographer this month! We greatly appreciate the time he gave to answer our questions, and to share some of his beautiful captures with all of 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 as a medium? Were you into photography before working with your wife? Was she into photography prior?

Like most people I think. Everyone enjoys taking photos. Some of us just get into it more than others. Always took photos with little point and shoot film cameras when I was a kid. Then in my early twenties I had a Canon Rebel film slr. Went overseas to work at age 23, and ended up dropping photography until about 2007. I was working in Iraq in telecommunications and had some co-workers who were into photography. Hadn’t really messed with digital much until then. Fell in love with it all over again. Luckily I had some great mentors for the first few years.

My wife Daow wasn’t really into it much before we met. While we were dating and our first year or so of marriage she messed around with the landscape photography a bit for a while, more to humor me than anything I think. However, she really enjoys outdoor portraiture, and we usually tag team sessions together. She does most of the ninja ‘capture the moment’ photos while I concentrate on the close up formal and posed stuff.

:: Your portfolio has an awesome array of images from the state of Wyoming, and you’ve done two REALLY nice and well-received time-lapse pieces of the state as well. Were you born in Wyoming? Obviously Wyoming is this massive playground for the outdoors, but what else drives you to focus on the state for your work? What challenges does trying to do justice to your state bring you?

Born in Wyoming, and lived here most of my life. Returned home in 2010 and have been taking photos as much as possible since then. I suppose my biggest drive for concentrating on Wyoming so much this past few years is that it’s more or less untapped in regards to landscape photography. The Tetons, Devil’s Tower, and Yellowstone have been photographed like crazy, but the majority of the state’s natural gems are not heavily, if at all photographed. You can find endless photos of most areas in states like Oregon, Washington, California, etc, but Wyoming contains an amazing variety of landscapes and geology. Maybe it’s because we are the least densely populated state in the country, not sure. though. We have several unique mountain ranges, the open high plains and basins, and then there is the massive Red Desert. We have over 40 Wilderness Study Areas scattered across the state, many of which contain amazing opportunities for landscape photography. I like being able to photograph places no one else has. Nothing wrong with going over to the popular areas and photographing spots others have shot before. Daow and I visit the Tetons regularly, but being able to bring some place new to the table is a lot more rewarding for me. That in itself is a challenge I guess. It’s also way more fun.

:: How do you deal with those instances where you might be shooting the same location over and over, and already have nice work from that spot? How do you stay challenged with locations that you may see multiple times a year?

Funny thing, while I was working in Iraq there was very, very little to photograph that we could get away with and not get in trouble for taking shots of. We’d shoot at this retention pond day after day for what seemed like forever. I have thousands of photographs from that one little spot. It was this weird sort of photography and patience training in a way. I learned to look for the most subtle changes in light, colors, shifts in the water level, or cracks in the mud around the pond to come up with something different and half way interesting. So in all honesty, there is no location in Wyoming that will ever become as challenging and boring as that pond on a military base in the middle of Iraq. If I could handle photographing that spot for nearly three years, nothing in this amazing state will ever bore me, no matter how many times I visit a location. Here’s one of my favorites from that crappy pond by the way.

:: How did you get started in storm photography? What different challenge does that provide? Normally the sky is a key addition to a typical landscape photograph, how do you change your approach when the sky IS the subject? Do you find there is added challenge getting the exposure or processing correct to make it look as good as it does?

Just seemed like a fun extension to the landscape stuff. We get some awe inspiring and photogenic supercells and thunderstorms here, and there are very few people out there who have really photographed them in the state. I suppose my biggest change in approach is that I tend to concentrate more on the storm than the landscape. With storms you don’t usually get to pick the spot where it’s going to be at its coolest potential for crazy photos. So you end up on a county road in the middle of nowhere with fences or buildings of some type that would normally be a no go for a nice landscape photo. But those elements that may be distracting in a straight up landscape photograph could end up giving a sense of scale or place with a supercell rotating overhead or a rapidly approaching shelf cloud. Especially works well with winding roads, which we have plenty of in Wyoming.

It’s sort of interesting. Photographing storms has helped me bring my landscape photography back to planet earth. It’s become easier and much much quicker to process my images now. Only when DoF stacking or manually blending super high dynamic range photographs do I even touch photoshop any more. Everything is usually edited fairly quickly in Lightroom. There was a time during my first year home where I was following the fantastical ‘artistic’ approach so many photographers take these days. Nothing wrong with it if that’s your preference, but for me it sort of seems a bit dishonest. Especially now that I look back at the direction I took a few photos that really were over the top. Nature really is awesome enough. As photographers we are out to capture what is in nature. It’s a real place and time that exists. We are not creating something that only lives in our minds like a painter might. There is no need to make photos look like a Disney set piece and then claim artistic interpretation, or that’s how ‘I’ saw it. Need to be careful with all these awesome post processing tools at our disposal. Personal opinion of course, will probably get flamed for writing that.

:: What was the biggest challenge to creating "Wyoming Wildscapes" time lapse? Was the effort worth the results? How does marketing a video differ from marketing individual images?

The biggest challenge was trying to make a 7 minute video with over an hour’s worth of time lapse footage, haha. There are scenes I really wish could have been shared in the video, but they just didn’t fit the story I was trying to tell. Oh yeah, and actually trying to tell a story with a time lapse. That was a huge challenge. The usual time lapse involves taking some epic song that everyone knows (usually from a famous composer), and putting a bunch of pretty sunrise, sunset, and night shots to it. This is definitely cool up to a point, but that formula didn’t fit with what I wanted to do with Wyoming Wildscapes II. Ghost Kollective, the band that created the custom track for the video, did an amazing job helping bring the story telling idea to fruition. They built this really cool and dynamic flowing piece that allowed me to transition between different moods and environments with ease. With time lapse videos of this genre, the music usually plays a background role. But with Wyoming Wildscapes II it plays an integral part in the overall flow and placement of sequences. Sort of a dance in a way, where both visual and audio compliment each other without one ever overpowering the other. Not sure if that makes sense.

To be honest, I’m horrible at marketing my work. Tried marketing the still photography, but have sort of given up on that. Micro stock has pretty much ruined the business for most. Best bet is to try and find a niche to fill. With the time lapse, I’ve always enjoyed the way Vimeo helps less well known individuals, plus their encoders are the best on the web. Sort of did the first Wyoming Wildscapes for the hell of it. Number two was slightly better planned, but I’ve never had much in the way of planning a marketing strategy. Just wanted to share my little neck of the world and try and remove a few misconceptions about the state. Maybe all this work will pay off financially someday, maybe it won’t. However, if Wyoming Wildscapes had gone exclusively to youtube the videos would be quickly lost in the millions of daily uploads. So I guess choose where you put your work wisely?

:: What was the scariest thing that has happened to you while out shooting? (I imagine lightning can be intimidating.)

Have tons of scary (like to call them terrorific!) stories, but I’ll share just two. First one involves both Daow and I. We were photographing along Greys River in the fall. Just taking some pretty photos of the Salt River Range during sunrise. Daow points out this young bull moose looking at us across the river. He seemed not at all bothered by our presence. I’ve encountered plenty of moose in the wild, and they usually just meander off, or straight up run away. This guy was not doing either. In fact he came across the river at us at a trot, which is pretty fast because moose have long legs. He made a couple of what I can only call bluff charges in our direction, definitely not playing, sort of doing a half circle around us. We did the only thing we could do. I had Daow get behind me while we slowly backed out of the area, talking gently but in a strong, calm voice. Told him to be cool, and that we were leaving, sort of a one way conversation, trying not to betray my voice with how scared I actually was. We finally made it up an embankment out of his reach and made our way back to the vehicle. Most people don’t realize this, but moose are extremely dangerous animals, more so than bears in many cases. When I see people approach them in places like the Tetons and Yellowstone, I can only shake my head. Wyoming is not a zoo. Think of it more like the Serengeti of North America containing several types of large mammals that can maul or stomp you to death with very little effort.

Second is a lightning story. I headed into the Sand Dunes WSA section of Killpecker Dunes near Boar’s Tusk, just north of Rock Springs. Hiked a couple of miles into the center of the dunes to set up for some sunset photos. It was about 4pm which is prime time for storm formation in Wyoming during the summer. As luck would have it a thunderstorm was building to the west and about 30 minutes later turned into a severe storm. Since my brain was on sunset stuff, I didn’t even really consider the storm or what direction it was heading, which is almost always generally west to east. It was on top of me before I could get to any type of cover and I ended up hunkering on the balls of my feet in the lowest portion of the dunes, with my tripod dropped about 100 feet behind. Ended up getting hammered by very high winds with near horizontal rain and small hail with lightning striking all around. Definitely a terrifying experience, and I know Daow was worried for my safety that day. She had chosen to stay in the vehicle that afternoon, smart lady. Lightning in Wyoming is the number one outdoor killer. It really is no joke. That said, after the storm passed a beautiful rainbow formed over the dunes. Managed a photograph otherwise impossible had I not been out in the middle of that crazy storm. Do what you love I guess.

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

The Jeep. Wouldn’t have been able to get into some of the areas we explore if it wasn’t for that awesome beast. It’s also kept us safe during some extremely dangerous lightning storms, and is great for sleeping in when we don’t have to hike into and tent up in an area. Also the safest winter vehicle I’ve ever driven.

:: How has social media played a role in your photography and what do you find is the best platform for you?

Pretty much just use a facebook business page and my own website. Have less than friendly opinions about all of the ‘vanity’ pay to play photography sharing websites out there. Will keep that opinion to myself though.

:: What do you find as the biggest challenge in your photography/video these days as opposed to earlier on in your career?

Trying to do something few other people are doing in an overcrowded market, all the while making sure it’s fun and hopefully a bit different. With so many people willing to give their work away for next to nothing, you have to think outside of the box more. And diversifying beyond my favorite types of photography into new genres. Fun, but definitely a challenge.

:: Any big plans in the coming year for video or photography work that you’re looking forward to?

A couple I hope. Can’t talk about them too much at the moment. I do have another large personal time lapse project planned. We’ll see where it goes over the course of the year. Figure if you’re going to go, go big!

:: Where is one place on your photographic bucket list? Why do you want to shoot there?

Well if I could go anywhere with money being no option, I’d probably go some place awesome like Antarctica or Greenland. Might be interesting to spend some time photographing landscapes in those areas with the ever changing dynamic of snow and ice. For a more realistic bucket list shot Daow and I will be packing into the Tetons next summer. I’d really like to come out of that range with something new and unique. Plus a few new time lapses.

:: What was the best piece of advice you received as you were beginning in photography? What piece of wisdom would you pass on to someone who is looking to get a start in shooting time lapse videos?

Best piece of advice I ever received, not just photography related, is don’t take yourself too seriously or get offended by critique. If you get caught up in all the compliments and kudos about stuff you’re head just might explode. If you get caught up in people tearing your work apart it won’t be fun any more. Best to do the things you love doing because you love doing them, not because you are expecting a positive reaction from others. And time lapse wise I’d say learn from others as much as you can, then go out and do your best to create something different.

Nicolaus Wegner

"Best to do the things you love doing because you love doing them...."

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