Interview with Maine Based Landscape Photographer Christopher O’Donnell
What made you decide to get into landscape photography?
I’ve always had a strong connection to nature, and I just subconsciously gravitated towards it. I was still living in Vermont when I became serious about photography, so being in that environment certainly influenced my choice. The untamed, raw beauty of landscapes and its unpredictability is what attracts me most to this field.
If not landscapes, what other type of photography would you be interested in?
I began with black and white film photography, so I would love to return to that format. The candid and evocative nature of street photography and photojournalism has always been of great interest to me. I greatly admire this field of work, and find it to share a common trait with landscape photography – the unpredictable environment that leaves so much to chance. The idea of capturing a moment in time that was created by volatile forces without orchestration is a powerful source of inspiration.
As a landscape photographer, what are some of the things you always look out for when shooting, to make your photos appear unique?
For strictly in the field: I like to explore many different vantage points of the same scene, at different times and under different light. Living in Maine allows me to be intimately familiar with the environment I photograph and revisit the same location many times over, and that’s a benefit I exploit to its fullest.
Foresight is also important in the field as the choices I make are often influenced by my ability to process them later. For example, I’ll often photograph several frames of a scene in order to capture the full tonal range and expand my creative horizons…if I didn’t possess the required processing knowledge to blend these exposures together, I may have dismissed a rare opportunity. In other words, my processing techniques will often influence the choices I make in the field, so I have to trust my ability to refine the raw data later in the digital darkroom without seeing the results in my viewfinder.
Do you have experience processing your photos in the darkroom as well? If yes, how has this affected your current workflow?
I was first introduced to photography as an art form with black and white film. In hindsight, this laid the foundation for all my future work. Analog gave me a solid understanding of light and tones without the distractions that come with digital photography, allowing me to focus strictly on the principles and elements. I became enamored with dodging and burning with an enlarger, and the idea of extracting a full tonal range from one negative has been a process that remained with me throughout my entire photographic journey thus far; it’s why I incorporate exposure blending into my entire portfolio to some extent.
How would you describe your photography style?
The style of my photography is the result of the personal connection I have to that particular moment and environment, and the image you see is my attempt to translate that experience into a visual representation – I absorb, convert, and render. When I look at my photos, I not only relive each experience – the atmosphere, smells, sounds, etc. – but also remember events that encompassed it. I recall everything about that day more vividly than others – where I went, who I talked to, and so on. In a way, my photographs serve as mental bookmarks that chronicle my life for the past 6 years, so my perspective is quite different now. It’s much more than a “style”, but rather a innate representation of me and my life.
In your Processing Tips page on your website, you mentioned that the most powerful part of your editing phase is exposure blending. How has this impacted your photography?
I first stumbled onto exposure blending when I was shooting a long exposure (my first, actually) in the field. I was experimenting with extended exposures (400 seconds), and took several frames in order to capture the full tonal range. However, I noticed a severe flaw – the images where my sky was exposed correctly, the foreground was underexposed, and where my foreground was exposed correctly, my sky lost all its color and texture. By simply combining the best parts of these two images of identical alignment, I was able to recreate, in part, the vision I had in the field and overcome the technical limitations of my digital camera. As I began to develop my creative processes, my exposure blending techniques also evolved to address the specific challenges this method presents for digital photography. It took many years to refine the blending process, and I’m continually changing my workflow to compliment the creative phase in the digital darkroom.
This has had a monumental impact on every aspect of my photography as the choices I make both in the field and in process revolve around a full tonal range – and that tonal range is of the highest quality with exposure blending. This is what led me to create a free eBook on exposure blending so that others may learn how to capture a full tonal range, which will help to expand their creative horizons both in the field and in the darkroom.
What are some of your must-have accessories when shooting landscapes?
My gear is rather simple and straightforward as I like to travel light. A tripod is a necessity, and two ND400 filters both for long exposures and to reduce the amount of light when using wide apertures. A backup is necessary as there’s nothing worse than a gear malfunction while miles away from home – a duplicate body with a fully-charged battery, its own memory card, a duplicate tripod quick-release plate, and a second wide-angle lens.
The best advice I can give in terms of gear is to always be ready – batteries charged, lenses cleaned, and memory cards empty. I do this faithfully after I get home from a shoot. With the unpredictability of nature, a rare opportunity can present itself when you least expect it.
How do you protect your camera from the elements when shooting outdoors?
Condensation and sea salt are my biggest concerns when shooting landscapes, so my preventative measures revolve around moisture affecting the internals of my gear. I’ll often carry a plastic bag with dry rice in it for emergencies in the field, and will make sure not to take my camera out of the bag immediately when moving it from one extreme temperature to another – for example, from a heated car to the freezing temperatures of winter. A fresh water rinse of my tripod legs after a seascape shoot is crucial.
Do you have any advice for people who wish to develop their own signature color processing?
The most helpful tool that will lead you to your own creative development is what I like to call your “creative compass”; that inner dialogue which guides the choices you make. Fueled by inspiration, it will direct you towards the workflow that is in harmony with your artistic soul and will bring you the most joy in your work. With the limitless amount of information available that attempts to guide your processing, you could easily be persuaded to follow a creative path that does not sit well with you. Sooner or later, the inconsistency between what you feel is right and what you are told is the “proper” way will start to wear on your soul as a photographer – the very spark that inspires your work. This disconnect will be evident in your photographs, and more importantly it will go against the very essence of art and creative expression.
If something has interrupted the harmony of your workflow, if your photography is starting to feel more like a chore than something that excites and inspires you, stop and analyze this disconnect. When did things change, and more importantly, how can you get back on the path that brought you enjoyment? It’s natural and expected to pursue new avenues in your work – it’s encouraged. The ability to recognize when something is not working and to have the courage to realign your workflow to be more in tune with what you want to express is what will lead to a fulfilling life as a photographer and as an artist.
How can your new ebook, The Art of Color Processing: A Guide to Creative Development in the Digital Darkroom help beginners in develop their own editing and processing workflows?
I’ve been asked to write an eBook on color processing for quite a while, and it took much introspective dialogue to explain how to develop your own creative methods in the digital darkroom. To simply explain my processes is only half of the equation – it teaches to mimic, not to develop. However, to read an eBook that doesn’t lead by example isn’t very compelling, so I decided to write an eBook that addresses both these points for a complete learning experience.
In The Art of Color Processing, I identify the disconnect between creative development and creative knowledge and explain how to bridge that gap. This is why I dedicated the first half of my eBook to detailing how I developed my own creative techniques, the importance of not placing limitations on your methods, and how you can develop your own color processing workflows. The second half discusses my processing techniques and why I chose them, and you can see the evolution of my images from RAW format to the final presentation using screenshots from Adobe® Photoshop software for visual instruction.
In a sentence, The Art of Color Processing is meant to assist in aligning your creative compass towards the path which leads to a more profound development of color processing workflows – and most importantly, results in greater satisfaction and joy in your photography.
Through my work, I like to show a vantage point that is rarely seen in reality; a show of beauty, emotion, and serenity. There are countless mesmerizing scenes among us that are often hidden from society – my goal is to expose them to the world so that I may share the wonders I have seen.
After college, I returned to the coast of Maine to pursue my love of landscape photography and have made it my career. Maine is one of the few states that is relatively untouched by human interference, which makes it the perfect landscape. My work changes like the seasons of New England, which always presents me with surreal opportunities to create something unique.