2017 has been a great year for landscape photographers. There’s been an abundance of amazing imagery and the lists of inspirational photographers keep growing.
Amongst all these great photographers, there’s one who’s stood out to me: Alex Noriega.
He’s an award-winning photographer who’s developed a unique and personal style that many look up to.
Please join me in congratulating Alex as CaptureLandscapes’ Photographer of the Year 2017. I’m sure that you will enjoy this in-depth interview with Alex, where you’ll learn more about him, his photography & vision, how he stays inspired and much more.
Congratulations on being CaptureLandscape’s Photographer of the Year 2017 and thank you for taking the time to do this interview. Can you start by telling us a little about yourself?
Thank you for choosing me for Photographer of the Year!
I’m 31 years old, and I’ve been photographing for 8 years now. I live in the Pacific Northwest of the US, but I’m currently primarily focusing my artistic efforts in the American Southwest.
How did you get into photography and more specifically, landscape photography?
I initially bought a camera only to take better pictures for selling stuff on eBay.
I was already self-employed at the time doing IT work, so I had all the free time I wanted to learn photography, and I was immediately sucked in by the satisfaction of making pictures – especially the technical aspects at first.
Initially, I shot everything: architecture, cityscapes, portraits, nature, etc. But a road trip out west to California from my home state of Wisconsin opened my eyes to something I had previously only seen in movies, TV, and video games: mountains and deserts. The grand and exotic nature of these new landscapes stirred something in me, and I moved to California with my friends that year.
One area of Utah that had a particularly large impact on me during that trip still draws me back to this day. When I moved to Oregon the following year, I made the decision to focus exclusively on landscapes and nature, and I think this focus helped me immensely.
Tell us a little about your photographic style and how you’ve managed to create your own unique look.
I would say that internally, I’m driven by a desire to make images with a sense of mystery. What this means for me in practice is that I don’t want the image to betray what me and my camera were doing. I don’t want you to look at my images and think “okay, he was standing right in this spot with a wide angle lens, pointing this way, at sunset”. I want the scene to be presented in a less literal way, such that it makes you think or wonder about what you’re looking at, or makes you believe that what I’m showing you could be endless. If you show an entire scene in your image, then it leaves nothing to the imagination. However, if you focus on the part of it that is most interesting to you, then the viewer is left to wonder or imagine what could be beyond the bounds of the frame.
This has left me focusing not necessarily only on small scenes (as sometimes the scale of what I’m shooting is quite large), but generally avoiding the typical grand, wide, literal views with a sky taking up the top 1⁄3 of the frame. One exception would be storm light with full, dark cloud cover – I’d always shoot that! I would also say my compositions are usually very centralized, with a focus on balance/symmetry and eliminating distracting elements. I want a clean look.
I aim for realistic yet dramatic processing – I want you to believe that what you’re seeing at the very least could have happened, so this means no impossible light or fake-looking effects (though I’ve certainly been guilty of the latter in the past).
I think all these considerations result in a kind of “dramatic intimate” style. It’s a blend of my influences, from the artists working the smallest, quietest scenes, to those doing the big and dramatic.
Following up on the previous question, how do you differentiate yourself from other landscape photographers?
I would say I sort of answered this in the previous question already, but I can expand here:
First and foremost, the kinds of compositions I seek are generally not grand and wide, so this rules out most of the iconic shots of any given place. If I have to find and create my own compositions to have them fulfill my vision, then they’re naturally going to be different from what most others are doing. Others are also rarely going to be able to go find and copy them, as they may be tucked away in some obscure corner.
Secondly, I’m not limiting myself to shooting only sunrise and sunset, as I think plenty of other factors can create interesting light, especially when you’re not including the sky in an image. So this results in images with different kinds of light and color than the explosive reds and pinks many people chase.
Third, I have very specific preferences in processing that probably show through overall – if I look at my portfolio as a whole, despite wildly varying subject matter and light and conditions, the tonality is all kind of similar. And I think that’s a result of these decisions I’m making during processing that nobody else would necessarily make, because they’re my personal preferences.
Lastly, I often have some external influence or piece of art in mind that gave me a feeling I want to replicate in my own work. For example, the Metroid series of video games all take place on alien planets, usually in very organic environments. So maybe there’s a specific area and a certain kind of atmosphere from one of these worlds that I’m reminded of in my own image, and this may guide me to push the image in that direction.
The majority of your images are from less-known and unique locations. What’s your thought on the current trends to chase the “trophy shots” (i.e. copying popular images)?
First off, I have to admit that I’ve been guilty of trophy chasing and comp-stomping in the past. I get it. I see that as a great tool for learning early on, replicating something you like. It’s an inherently satisfying process just making that image, to a degree. But at some point, once you get the technical aspects down, I think you have to try to find your own compositions.
I see trophy hunting and comp-stomping as a form of paint-by-numbers: yeah, you’re technically performing the brush strokes, but are you really creating anything? You’re just going through the motions that someone laid out before you. I think it’s a waste of one’s potential talent and creativity to get perpetually sucked into this kind of photography. How will we ever know what kind of artist you can be if you never even make anything that’s uniquely yours? What will be different about your image when you’re lined up shoulder to shoulder at sunset or sunrise with 50 other people at Mesa Arch, Maroon Bells, or the Watchman Bridge? The same question applies even if you’re hiking alone off-trail to find some specific spot that another photographer shot before you. What images of your own are you missing out on during that process?
If you feel that you “have” to get a shot when you’re out shooting, and you therefore go for the guaranteed ready-made option of the iconic trophy shot, maybe you should re-evaluate why you’re doing it in the first place. Is it to make a quick buck leading a workshop even though you only just started shooting last year? Is it for meaningless likes on social media? Or do you genuinely enjoy the therapeutic process of simply producing an image, regardless of its content? I can understand all of these reasons to some degree, but the rewards in them are fleeting. The only true long-term gains to be had are in creating something that is really yours.
How do you find these less-known spots? Can you take us through some of the planning/scouting processes?
I do a lot of looking at Google Earth, reading hiking/guidebooks, looking at fellow artists’ images, and even perusing snapshots on a Google image search. I’m not looking for a guide to a specific shot or location, but just a general idea of what an area has to offer, an initial seed of inspiration.
There’s that oft-touted saying that a good photographer can make a good image anywhere, anytime, with any subject. That may be true, but I want to be personally inspired by the place and the subject matter that I’m photographing, so I look for something interesting to me in the previous documentation of an area, be it hikers’ snapshots or others’ art.
Just to reiterate, I’m not trying to go copy those images – it just goes something like: “hey, looks like this area has lots of cool red rock canyons”, or “hey, this place seems to be full of this kind of vegetation. Could be some cool possibilities there!”
Then, it’s a matter of driving through the area, and spending some time hiking and exploring! I don’t want to find the specific thing that I saw online or in a book that initially inspired me to go there – that was just a starting point. I want to take it from there and find the parts of that landscape and the occurrences of light and nature that will be unique to me. Obviously, getting to know a place intimately has its benefits – knowing when and where to be when certain things are happening with the light or weather. And with the areas of the Southwest that are now my primary focus, my multiple return trips each year are adding to my knowledge, as well as increasing my desire to explore around that next corner on my next visit!
The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know, right?
Let’s look a little at the business aspect of photography. Besides social media, how do you market your photography?
I suppose social media is the only way I do so. I have a mailing list, but I believe everyone signed up for it initially found me via social media. I don’t know of a better way to reach more people. While I would love to have a brick and mortar gallery someday, how can that compete with literally millions of views online, just in terms of getting my work seen?
How important is social media to your success?
I suppose it’s important from a business perspective because it allows people to see my new work, and to find me in the first place. But more importantly, I’m sure it’s also had a role in my personal artistic success, as I don’t know of a better place to be connected to so many great artists that can be a source of inspiration. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t keep creating if social media was gone (I would), but on the whole, it doesn’t hurt that I am constantly presented with inspiration.
There’s also a lot of the trophy/iconic/copycat shots flooding social media, but that’s a form of inspiration to me as well – helping remind me of what I don’t want to be doing and motivating me to further try to differentiate my work.
You’ve won several international awards, such as the USA Landscape Photographer of the Year, do you actively enter photography competitions?
I don’t, really! I think I may have entered one a few years back, but other than that, the three that I won in 2016 are the only three I had entered up to that point. I entered one this year at the request of its organizers, and I may enter one more. But I’m not seeking validation or praise (humbled as I am to have been recognized by the judging panels full of respected peers last year). It’s just good business sense, I think – a lottery ticket with a decent chance! After I’ve given all the main ones with sizable prize purses a shot, I don’t think I’ll be continuing to enter them, at least not for quite a while.
And on that note, I’m not driven by monetary success or material possessions. I just see the windfalls of winning competitions as equivalent to months of freedom to pursue whatever I desire. I want to live a modest and peaceful life and only work hard at my passions, so I see competitions as one way to help with that – but not something I’ll perpetually be entering.
I have started judging some as well this year, so we’ll see how long that continues!
What is and what has been your biggest challenges with photography?
I think my volume of output and continuing engagement online is the biggest challenge. I’m so critical of my own work, so picky and particular, that I will seldom release new images – probably about 30 per year, a third of which will likely be deleted later as I continually curate. I think I have around 120 total images in my current portfolio spanning seven years of shooting nature, so that works out to an average of 17 per year. I know people that post a new one every day!
I’ve deleted probably hundreds of released images from my portfolio over that span of time, and there are hundreds more that never saw the light of day – but I’m talking about the number of images that are successful by my standards, that stand the test of time. I did just release a gallery of fifteen new images at once, which was a first for me (usually they come out one at a time).
I certainly believe in quality over quantity, but I know I could be generating more business if I was more proactive about releasing images and staying active on social media.
How would you describe your post-processing?
I sort of answered this in the third question but I would say dramatic yet realistic, bold yet subtle?
Much in the same way I don’t want my compositions to betray what I was doing with my camera, I don’t want my processing to make the viewer think about me using Photoshop. I want the image to stand out and have a specific atmosphere, or a mysterious look, or whatever it is I’m trying to convey, and processing can certainly help with that. But I don’t want the processing to be a distraction for the viewer.
How important do you think post-processing is in landscape photography today? Can someone succeed without processing his or her images?
I think that depends on the goals of the artist. I look at some of my favorite photographers like Hans Strand, Theo Bosboom, Alex Nail, and Hougaard Malan.. they’re very light on the processing and in some cases very principled about how little they use, and I think they make some of the best images I’ve ever seen.
But on the other hand, I consider my absolute favorite artist, Guy Tal: his compositions and subject matter are as unique as any out there, but he further makes his images his own artistic creations with his processing. Not many people think of him when they think post-processing because he’s not generally presenting bold, grand, in-your-face scenes. But he’s transforming the images according to his specific vision and giving them another level of emotion and differentiation.
So in summary, I think it can be done and I respect those who do it well – it takes a special focus on composition and light, which are undoubtedly the most important aspects of good photography. But I don’t personally draw the line there and refrain from using yet another helpful tool for conveying one’s artistic vision.
What advice would you give to someone who’s just getting started with landscape photography and perhaps already dreaming of making a living from it?
Don’t try to rush into making a living on it before you’ve found your artistic voice. Know that the only fast route is to go chase trophy shots and collect a quick portfolio of iconic images that others have made before, in order to start teaching as soon as possible.
I see this as a cynical, business-only approach devoid of passion for the art. In my opinion, it would be better to keep at your day job, or however you need to make a living in the meantime, but dedicate all the time you can to improving your art, finding your own vision, and creating your own images. If you do that, in time you’ll differentiate yourself and then the business will come to you, allowing you to make a living off your passion without compromising your art.
Be patient, it will take time. Don’t get sucked into making it a business right away, because you’ll miss out on the things that make creating worthwhile.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’ve partially answered this in previous questions, but there are many sources. There’s obviously the landscapes that I spend time in and the real occurrences of light and weather and nature that I experience.
There are also those times that I’m moved by the atmosphere of an environment in a fictional context, be it in games, movies, or books – so this is some combination of others’ artistic vision and my own imagination.
And lastly, there are of course my fellow photographic artists, who are a constant and reliable source of inspiration. Some of my favorites, off the top of my head: Guy Tal, Floris Van Breugel, Hans Strand, Art Wolfe, Michael Fatali, Frans Lanting, Ian Plant, Adam Gibbs, Alister Benn, Marsel Van Oosten, Sarah Marino, Ron Coscorrosa, Alex Nail, Hougaard Malan, and Theo Bosboom, to name a few. I hope this doesn’t come off as “name dropping”, I just really think anyone reading this should check out the portfolios of these artists if they’re interested in the kinds of work that inspire me.
What’s next for Alex Noriega?
I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing – looking for new images I can call my own in places that inspire me. More immediately, I’m going to go eat a breakfast burrito!