Photographer of the Month Interview: Phillip Noll | Aperture Academy

Featured Photographer, April 2017:   Phillip Noll

We are happy to have Phillip Noll 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.

:: Your bio mentions that you have had a camera in your hand since a very young age. What about that medium excited you as a child? What still keeps you excited about the medium?

As a little kid, I just thought it was so cool that I could point a little box towards a scene, press a button, and then after the film was developed, I would have an image of what I witnessed. It was magic! When I got my first SLR at around 14 years old there was something special about looking through the viewfinder and watching the subject come into focus. The camera taught me how to "look" at the world. We "see" things all the time but it's usually in some broad sweep with our brains generalizing the scene. The camera forced me to isolate certain aspects of the scene and pay more attention to what I was looking at. I "see" lots of things, but when I "look" at something, well, that's more intimate and thoughtful. It's like hearing and listening. Hearing happens all the time whether you want it to or not. But listening requires intention and purpose. Looking through the camera was an act of discovery and that always appealed to me as a kid.

What still keeps me excited about photography? Well, I have zero talent when it comes to drawing or painting but I can compose a photograph fairly well. I know my equipment and I have developed my own techniques for shooting, so it's comfortable. And I've learned how to "develop" my photos in Lightroom/Photoshop to really make them sing. I love planning trips to new areas, exploring, shooting sunrise and sunset, watching storms roll in, and just being out in Nature. Photography drives all that and getting a really nice photograph is just icing on the cake. I think everyone needs to have a creative outlet and photography has become mine.

:: Having a background in geology probably gives you a little different perspective on things…how do you think that background helps you become a better photographer? (or does it?)

When I was a kid, our family took off every summer and headed to National Parks for three weeks. My Dad would read from the trail guides and point out things we saw on our hikes. Quite often it was the geology of a place that made it special so I tied geology to wonderful scenery at an early age. By the time I got to college, I wanted a career with opportunities to work outside and maybe even work in some of those spectacular places we visited. I did very well in the introductory geology courses I took and one of the professors recruited me into the field. I found that I had a deep love for planet Earth and I wanted to learn how she works, so I majored in geology. After undergraduate school, I went on to earn MS and PhD degrees in geology focusing mainly on the geochemistry of volcanic rocks.

As far as the influence of geology on my photography, I don't think a background in geology makes me a better photographer. From a photography perspective, I am interested in the landforms, plants, animals, shapes, lines, colors, the quality of the light, etc. I am looking for what will make an interesting and pleasing photograph. These are the same things that non-geologist photographers look for. I may know more than the lay person regarding how the landforms came about through erosion and mountain building, how old the rocks are, how they formed, what their chemistry and mineralogy tell us, and how they fit into the geologic history of the Earth as a whole, but those are scientific interests rather than aesthetic interests. To me, nature photography is about the aesthetics of the land. Right verses left side of the brain, I guess. Perhaps someday I will merge the two and do a book on "The Art of Geology".

:: What do you think is one thing most new photographers take for granted, or perhaps neglect to realize when they begin with this profession or hobby?

How expensive it is!! (Just kidding. Sorta.) The number one thing that many new photographers don't seem to understand is that, in order to be successful as a professional photographer, you have to be a damn good marketer! You have to sell yourself, build your brand, tell a story. You have to be an excellent communicator and convince people to buy what you are selling. Your work must be technically excellent and have an emotional connection with people.

Many photographers are uncomfortable promoting themselves. A few excel at it. There is the old adage that, "It's 20% talent and 80% marketing". Not sure I agree with those numbers per se, but the point is well taken. You can be the best photographer on the planet but if you can't market yourself and your product, you won't make much money. Having said that, if I ever figure any of it out, I'll let you know!

:: You've witnessed some great things with a camera…what moment stands out as the best you've witnessed with the camera? What moment did you witness that you did not have a camera that you still remember, and wish you had.

A few years ago, my wife and I went to the Redwoods in northern California. Everyone told us about the fog that appears every morning and how amazing it is in the redwood forests. We were there for four days and there was no fog at all! But, a few years after that first trip we returned to the Redwoods. One morning we got up early and began hiking the Damnation Creek Trail and sure enough, the fog rolled in. It was so magical. The giant trees, the bright pink Rhododendron blooms, the diffuse light passing through the leaves, the intense green of the lush vegetation— it was all so beautiful. But then something I hadn't expected happened. The fog began to break up and beams of light began dancing through the giant trees. The fog would come and go and the "shifting shafts of shining" would become intense and then disappear, over and over. I was like a kid in a candy store! I was running like mad up and down the trail looking for compositions and bracketing each shot so I could blend them later on the computer to preserve the dynamic range I was witnessing. The light rays came and went over about 10 minutes and then the fog was gone and the sun shone down to the forest floor. It was such an incredible experience and I was so glad I could capture it!

As far as witnessing something incredible and not having a camera with me, I guess it would have to be that time I saw Elvis and Sasquatch get into a spaceship in a meadow near Mt. Hood. OK, that didn't really happen. I can't pinpoint any specific experience but often it is an incredible sunset or storm with a rainbow and my camera is safely back at home in the closet! D'oh! And I always seem to see more wildlife when I don't have a camera with me. Weird. But when something awesome happens and I am without camera, I just sit and take it all in and really focus on being in the moment.

:: Your wife also is a photographer. How are you two different in how you visualize a scene?

Well, we have very different styles. When I get to a location I immediately set up the camera and tripod and begin shooting. I'm constantly moving from one spot to another looking for compositions, changing lenses, and making mental notes to come back to certain spots at different times or to try different angles, etc. I don't just fire off a bunch of shots but rather I use the camera to compose and shoot a reference shot. Like I said above, the camera helps me isolate parts of the scene instead of falling into the "I gotta get it all in one frame" mindset. When I arrive at a scene I'm usually very excited and can't wait to start shooting. That said, I have no problem going to a location and waiting for hours for the right light or for the weather to cooperate. I will often return to a given location many times to get photos under different lighting, seasons, weather conditions, etc. But generally, I'm a moving target.

In contrast, Monica arrives at a scene, sets her camera pack down, quietly surveys the area, takes in the angle and quality of light, the shapes and forms, the lay of the land, the colors of the rocks and vegetation, and looks around for possible compositions. Sometimes I will have run all over the place before she takes her first photo! And sometimes she doesn't take any photos at all. She says if she doesn't "see it" there is no point in getting the camera out. She is very thoughtful, contemplative, and methodical in her approach to photography whereas I'm more, oh what's a good word……..dynamic! Yeah, that's it!

Even with our differences, when we are back home and reviewing the photos we took, we find there are shots that are different (Nice! I didn't see that!) and then there are some shots that are almost the same; as if we stood side by side and called it out but we did not.

:: Living in New Mexico, what do you think is one common misconception folks have about the state? What's your personal favorite overlooked aspect of the state?

So many people have this preconceived notion that New Mexico is a hot dry desert of yuccas, cacti, and rattlesnakes. While there are parts of New Mexico that are like that, the state is quite diverse in terms of landscapes, climate, wildlife, and vegetation. New Mexico ranges from the Chihuahuan Desert to alpine tundra and nearly everything in between. We have snowcapped 13,000 foot peaks, long and deep canyons, otherworldly badlands, volcanos, mesas, plateaus, grasslands, prairies, high deserts, sand dunes, lakes, rivers, springs (hot and cold!), forests, unique architecture, ruins of ancient civilizations, and some of the best food anywhere! Also, New Mexico's history is long and varied. From the Clovis People (13,500 years ago) to the Ancestral Pueblo (Anasazi; ~900 years ago to the present), the Navajo and Apache (~500 years ago to present), the arrival of Europeans with Coronado (mid 1500's), the influx of American Settlers in the late 1800s, combined with today's diverse cultures, New Mexico's history spans many thousands of years. It is the birthplace of the atomic bomb, has two National Laboratories, was the home of Georgia O'Keefe, Kit Carson, Geronimo, Smokey Bear, and Billy the Kid. New Mexico is also home to many celebrities and Santa Fe and Taos are art meccas. OK, now I'm starting to sound like the New Mexico Tourism Department! Suffice it to say that I love New Mexico and the opportunities for photography here are endless. Shhh!! Don't tell anyone.

I think my favorite aspect of New Mexico is that there are vast expanses of country with no "hand of man". There are places where you can climb a small hill (or a mountain) and look in any direction for 50-100 miles and not see any evidence of human occupation. It's very easy to find solitude here.

:: What challenges you the most with your photography these days?

Several things are proving to be challenging to me nowadays. I'm no spring chicken so in my advanced state of decrepitude I am finding it harder and harder to carry 30+ lbs of gear on my back while hiking long and rough trails. Some of that may stem from my love of cookies and ice cream and probably also from my youthful days of geology field work carrying 40 lbs of rocks in my backpack, but physical limitations are certainly starting to creep in.

I also find it challenging to keep up with the rate of change with respect to technology. I used to stay current on all the latest gear, software, sensor designs, etc. but I no longer place as much emphasis on that as I once did. My main focus (pun not intended) now is on making images. My current equipment gives me excellent image quality and resolution so I'm happy with that. If there is something critical I am missing, then the research begins.

:: What's the scariest thing that has happened to you while photographing?

Monica and I went to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon not long ago and we timed out trip to coincide with the summer monsoons. Nearly every evening we would watch thunderstorms develop over the canyon and drift eastward supplying us with dramatic clouds, rays of light, rainbows, lightning, and rainstorms mixed in with the colorful light of sunset and the spectacular beauty of the canyon.

One early afternoon we thought we would hike the Uncle Jim Trail and check it out. I actually have two Uncle Jims so it seemed like the right thing to do. We wanted to see if there were any good photo locations along the trail. Shortly after we started off on our hike a storm blew in. I figured it was one of those little one-cloud storms that blows over quickly so we put on our rain gear and continued hiking. Not far to our left a lightning bolt crashed through the atmosphere and into the trees. The flash and the sound were almost simultaneous. A moment later another bolt tore through the sky to our right. This trail goes through a rather thick ponderosa pine forest on top of a flat mesa so there really wasn't any place to find shelter. We figured it would be best to just keep moving. The lightning and the thunder was fairly regular for a good 30-45 minutes. Every few minutes another flash and crash nearby would scare the "bleep" out of us! As if the repeated close calls with 1.21 Gigawatts of raw electrical power wasn't enough to have us completely frazzled, we had learned that lightning struck one of the overlooks on the South Rim killing two tourists the evening before. We wondered if we would be next. It makes for a good story now but at the time we were both very worried. As a result, we developed a healthy respect for lightning and thunderstorms!

:: What's your favorite piece of non-photographic gear?

I think it's a toss-up between a good flashlight and rain gear. There is nothing worse than being soaking wet and cold and trying to shoot. And a flashlight is essential for those long hikes back to camp after sunset, especially when you are not the only large predator in the area!

:: With all the push for online sharing, recognition, and acceptance these days how do you personally juggle that aspect of this medium?

I have a "Love/Hate" relationship with social media. I love being able to share my work with a large audience and interact with those who pause long enough to leave a comment. I also like to see what other photographers are up to. Social media can be a great resource for information on everything from locations to camera gear. And the absolute best thing about social media are the friends I've made; both virtual and real.

On the other hand, I used to feel bad when my photo wouldn't reach the first page of 500px, or that I didn't have 10,000 followers on Instagram, or my Facebook page only has so many likes. But in reality, none of that matters. It's purely superficial. In addition, many social media platforms are completely overrun by bots; so, the "Liking", commenting, and number of followers is completely fake. Using a bot or script to become popular has eliminated any sense of community that a given platform may have had. It also results in a lot of mediocre work floating to the top while good work doesn't get seen. It's a shame. "Likes" and comments rarely translate into sales anyway. I quit paying attention to how many "Friends" or "Followers" I have, or if my photo got more than 94.4 on 500px. I just use social media as a place to share my work and don't worry about my relative position or popularity.

:: Your work seems to have certain color themes in images that dominate a scene…what draws you to a specific color or scene?

Most of the time you are at the mercy of Mother Nature and what colors, or range of colors, she is willing to share with you. But when you are given a dominant color or a specific color combination, your knowledge of how humans interpret color and give colors meaning should then guide how you compose and expose the photograph. Each color brings with it both positive and negative emotions depending on the context. For example, blues can evoke feelings of tranquility, security, peace, and trust but can also represent coldness, sorrow, and fear depending on the situation. Baby blues versus singing the blues!

One summer evening at the Grand Canyon a monsoon storm formed at sunset. The clouds were a swirling angry mass of deep translucent blues and grays and the sky beneath the clouds was an orange-red color. Knowing that red evokes energy and strength but also danger, and that grays and blues can evoke fear and gloom, I decided that I wanted to focus on the awesome power of the storm and its relation to the canyon. So instead of a wide angle shot so common at the Grand Canyon, I zoomed in on the blue/gray cloud and the red sky with only a small amount of the canyon visible to anchor the photograph thus making the image all about power and danger. The photo tells a story and is unique compared to the multitudes of wide angle-sunny sky shots of the canyon.

In another example I was looking at an aspen grove in the fall and wondering how to make something unique. Yellow leaves and greenish-white aspen trunks are certainly beautiful but we are saturated with such photos and I wanted something different. So, I zoomed in to fill the frame with the trunks and leaves, reducing the forest to the basic elements. Then I converted the image to a sepia tone and increased the exposure (in Photoshop) for a high-key effect. The resulting image is mostly white but the trees and leaves are easily discernable in various shades of brown. White evokes feelings of purity, freshness, and goodness and brown brings feelings of friendliness and can represent the Earth. The combination of colors with a focus on the trunks and leaves, has resulted in one of my most popular images.

I recommend learning what feelings we humans associate with colors (or carry a small cheat sheet!) and let that guide how you compose and expose a scene. Successful photographs make an emotional connection with the viewer and the use of color is one of your strongest tools to achieve that connection.

:: Where do you think landscape photography is headed in the next 5-10 years?

Hmmm. Hadn't really given that much thought. Seems that video and drone photography are exploding right now so I would expect that to continue. I expect we'll see improvements in drone cameras. And since more and more people are buying ultra-high resolution displays and TVs to watch 4K video on, I expect more and more video of the landscape to be produced.

For still images I think compositing and "digital painting" will grow in popularity. That's fine as long the viewer knows what they are looking at and the artist isn't trying to pull a fast one. I also think we might be on the verge of a new image format that adds motion to what would have been a traditional still image. Sort of like a repeating animated GIF but a completely new format with much higher quality where images show maybe up to 10 seconds of animation. Perhaps the images are first presented as still images but become animated on a mouse-over or after a couple seconds. Those are my guesses anyway.

:: What was the last thing photographically that you learned? What was the last thing you showed someone else that blew their mind?

That the sensors in my cameras are in desperate need of cleaning! I guess the most recent thing I have learned is how to dodge and burn with color in Photoshop. It's a great way to direct a viewer's attention to certain parts of an image. It's not necessarily a new technique but its new to my toolbox.

A friend (casual photographer) recently asked me to give him some pointers to improve his photography. I had him work on things like depth of field, shutter speed, and various compositional rules, etc. After we had spent a couple hours and he was getting the hang of the basics, it was getting late and the sun was sinking towards the horizon. So, to end his tutoring session with a bang, I decided to show him how to capture a sunstar. I had him point his camera towards the west and get the sun just peaking around a tree trunk. Then I told him to stop down to the smallest aperture and shoot. When the photo appeared on the display on the back of his camera he stared at it in disbelief and then a huge grin appeared on his face. That was a really cool moment!

:: How do you approach a scene to try and differentiate yourself from photographers who have visited an area previously?

If I am shooting an iconic scene I will typically shoot the straightforward compositions and get that out of my system. That's what usually drew me to the scene in the first place. Then I will start looking for something unique. Many times, I will get very low to the ground and look for leading lines or an unusual pattern to serve as a foreground anchor. Or maybe I will look for an unusual perspective. Sometimes I'll come back to the area to get the full moon rising or setting or during unsettled weather conditions to add something different to an iconic scene. I think the key to getting something unique is to spend some time in a particular area and learn how the light changes throughout the day. Find some unusual vantage points. Come back under different or unusual weather conditions. The less time you spend getting to know a particular location or scene, the more your images will look like everyone else's.

Phillip Noll

"I think the key to getting something unique is to spend some time in a particular area and learn how the light changes throughout the day..."

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