I’m excited to share this month’s Photographer of the Month interview. This time you’ll get to know more about American landscape photographer Greg Boratyn. Greg is a photographer I’ve been following for the past few years and I’m always blown away by the constant high-quality images he’s putting out. In my humble opinion, Greg is amongst the top landscape photographers out there so I’m extra excited to share this interview with you.
Can you start by telling us a little about yourself and how you got started with photography?
I’m a software engineer and my everyday work consists of sitting in front of my computer, writing code. It’s probably not what anyone would expect from someone that is an outdoor/landscape photographer, I bet. That’s what sparked my photography passion; I needed to get out of my office and “reconnect” with nature.
I purchased my first point-and-shoot camera, which are mostly now replaced with smartphones, and (at first) started documenting moments and memories of the time I spent with my family on vacations.
If I recall correctly, my first trip with a small 4MP sensor digital camera was to Hawaii. I loved the fact that I was able to download and instantly preview images on my laptop and then print them on my printer at home. That was 17 years ago.
Back then, I didn’t know much about photography, so I started improving my skills by reading lots of photography magazines and online tutorials, and viewing educational DVDs where pro photographers taught photography essentials. I then purchased my first DSLR body, and it was a breakthrough for me. I liked manual or aperture modes, which allowed me to take more artistic and much higher quality images using pro class lenses with large apertures.
I am mostly self-taught, however, several years ago I won a photography contest organized by Topaz Labs and the New York Institute of Photography (NYIP). The prize was one class at NYIP, so I took it.
I find your photographic style to be both dramatic and subtle at the same time. How would you describe your style?
I don’t think I actually have any specific “style” per se.
The mood in my images is highly dependent on what I see/feel when shooting, what kind of subject I’m photographing, and what kind of light I have at the moment.
I take time and plan my trips ahead and very carefully whether I already know the place or not. If the location is new to me, or a serious hike is required, I arrive several hours (even days) earlier, hike and wait for the best light I can get to expose either the drama or subtlety of the scene I’m seeing.
To further emphasize the mood in the picture I use software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop.
What do you look for in an image?
Without looking at the technical aspect of photography, I’m looking for what the image conveys. I often ask questions like:
Does it tell a “visual story” and engages viewers, stimulate their perceptive vision of the place that is captured by the photograph?
Does it allow them to associate their own memories and/or life experiences with the place captured in the image?
Does it make some statement about the small fragment of the world captured by the photograph?
In a time where many portfolios include shots of ‘iconic’ locations, there are very few to find in yours. How do you set out to find new and unique scenes to photograph?
I do shoot iconic locations as well but I don’t put legs of my tripod in holes made by someone else’s tripod. I avoid repetition.
When shooting popular (or iconic) locations, I try approaching them differently than on shots easily found all over the Internet. I try finding different compositions or wait for different weather conditions, and/or light. Maybe instead of sunset or sunrise, I’ll try a night shot with Milky Way or the Moon.
In addition, many popular locations can look completely different if shot from a different angle, or from a distance. I often hike further away from a popular spot everyone shoots from, and sometimes even many miles away. The extra effort usually results in an original take on iconic locations.
For example, let’s look at my recent dune shots from the Death Valley National Park. I shot them all at a very popular location, but I’ve hiked the dune range all the way to the end, where no one goes to. That’s over 2 miles long hike on soft terrain each way. This can be challenging and time-consuming, and many photographers won’t bother going that far, but I was able to find truly unique dune formations and shot images no one would expect are from there. I also planned my trip and waited for the “proper” weather and light. I was lucky to get some rain and clouds that made my dune shots even more “unrecognizable”.
From deserts in California to Arctic forests in Finland, you seem to have photographed it all. How do you adapt to these different landscapes to keep your high-quality standards?
As I mentioned before, my trips are always carefully planned. I research all the locations I want to go to and shoot (national parks), the place I want to stay in, and transportation available to me in each country, although I usually rent a car at the airport and drive around myself. This allows me to be more flexible and be at the place at the right time.
So, because I put time in planning, I can anticipate and thus adapt easier, and be prepared/ready for each situation and weather condition while in a field shooting.
Ironically, it’s not me that has problems adapting but my gear. My current camera is rated to only about 32F (0C) so while in Finland I had a lot of problems shooting in temperatures way below freezing. As much as I like mirrorless camera systems (they are light and compact) I dislike their fragility. None of the current mirrorless companies makes bodies that can fully operate in temperature below say 5F (-15C). With DSLR I had no such problems and I was able to shoot at even -40F/-40C (in Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park).
You’ve said that post-processing is a big part of your photography. Can you take us through some of the steps in your creative workflow?
All images I shoot are in raw format. This means some level of post-processing in software is required to bring out saturation, contrast, or sharpness, etc. in the image.
I normally start in Adobe Lightroom and adjust exposure, blacks and whites. I also make small adjustments to highlights or shadows but I try to stay away from those sliders as they add the “halo” effect to the edge of high contrast areas. If the image is shot at very even light and doesn’t have a high contrast transition (e.g. between a bright sky and much darker foreground element) those sliders are working great and can be used to creatively process the image.
If I feel that my image needs an additional (maybe more refined and/or targeted) adjustment I’ll export the raw as a smart object and further process it in Adobe Photoshop using masks and layers.
‘Removing distracting elements’ is a compositional technique that you seemed to have mastered. Can you take us through some of your thought-processes when setting up your composition and creating an image?
Yes, removing distracting elements can be challenging at times. What I do is get very close to the subject (e.g. a tree) and take several shots that I later stitch in software. I do this because one, my super wide-angle lens can’t capture all at once, so I have to overcome this problem via stitching, but more importantly to exclude distracting elements that are in front of, and thus blocking (usually partially) the tree, or whatever the subject is I’m shooting. If that’s no possible I take two exposures (one with the distracting element and one next to it) and use layers and masks in Photoshop to replace unwanted elements (from one shot to another).
This is also not always possible. If all else fails, I simply use the content aware brush in Photoshop to remove distractions.
What and/or who inspires you to keep going?
I’m a passionate photographer, but I simply can’t explain what drives me or where this passion/drive comes from that keeps me going. It certainly started because of the nature of my day job. But, I also do quite a bit of print sales now, and it really motivates me to see people interested in purchasing my work.
Yes, I participate in art festivals and I do sell my prints each year (except this 2020, since all festivals got cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic). I talk to my clients, and try to address their print needs. Some look for waves or ocean type of imagery, some forests/trees with fall colors etc. So, each year I plan my trips to go to places where I can take shots I know people are interested in.
As far as other photographers that inspire me goes? Well, I like the work of many other photographers. Some of them I see you’ve interviewed before, like Max Foster. We all in a way motivate each other, trying to take unique shots from similar locations.
Another reason could be because I’m an outdoor person, enjoying hikes and staying/sleeping in a tent at some remote location. That motivates me as well. In fact, every time I hike/camp now is really to take unique shots of a remote landscape that hardly anyone has ever seen and/or photographed.
What is one piece of equipment you always have in your backpack?
It’s difficult to select just one, but if I had to (besides my camera body) it would be my Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S lens. I do not go anywhere without it. To me it’s a must-have as a landscape photography lens, although I’m sure portraiture or wedding photographers like this lens as well. The range is perfect for the type of work I do, and when set vertically at 24mm it allows me to take nice panorama type of shots. It is also one of the sharpest zoom lenses I’ve ever owned, matching or exceeding prime lenses.
What are your top 3 advice for beginning landscape photographers?
First, get to know your camera (read the manual that comes with it). Purchase a good and steady, but also light, tripod. It is a must-have tool for landscape photography. Practice shooting at some well-known location but try to approach it differently. Don’t shoot the same scene many have shot already a hundred times before (get closer or lower or wait for more appealing light/colors in the sky, as an example). Use tools like color intensifiers or circular polarizers to get the drama out in the sky. Shoot at the correct time, when light is diffused and soft, learn what the golden or blue hour times are, and when they occur. And, don’t be afraid of bad weather. Learn how to utilize it to your advantage.
Understanding what hyperfocal distance is to get a sharp image throughout the entire frame is also very important, especially when shooting landscapes. Objects in front of your camera should be as sharp as those further away. If required use the focus stacking technique to achieve sharpness.
Finally, practice how to correctly post-process images, but don’t go overboard with color/contrast, or sharpness. I know it’s more than 3 advices, but they are all equally important.