November 22nd 2012 by Andrew S Gibson
This article is part of a series of interviews with long exposure photographers to celebrate the release of my ebook Slow. You can keep track of the interviews by clicking on the Long Exposure Photography Interviews link under Categories in the right-hand sidebar.
Nate Parker is a photographer who lives on Mount Desert Island, in the state of Maine in America’s north-east. The island is the home of Acadia National Park and the beautiful resort town of Bar Harbor. The rugged coast and varied landscape makes it ideal for long exposure and black and white photography.
Some of you may recognise Nate – a portfolio of his work appeared in the first edition of PHOTOGRAPH magazine.
How would you describe your photographic vision? What kind of look do you try and create in your photos?
As far as my photographic vision is concerned I try to achieve something of a classic and clean feel but like to include an element of drama if at all possible. My images are representations (not composites) and I try to achieve an emotional response to a scene that will draw the viewer in and ideally make a picture worth looking at everyday on the wall. For the most part less is better in my search for a scene.
Name three photographers you like and why.
Ansel Adams was the ultimate craftsman in our field and his work demands to be studied. Not least because his concept “a negative is the score and the print is the performance” teaches us how important and valuable the “darkroom” work is. Proper image capture technique and composition cannot be overlooked but what sets us apart as photographers is the individuality and personality we can find in our images in the development process.
Michael Kenna I respect as a compositional genius and his ability to touch me in his work is always a thrill to behold. His control of blacks give his images such an emotional power and strength and particularly his Hokkaido work is absolutely transcendent!
Also, much more of our contemporary, Joel Tjintjelaar has long been a massive inspiration not only in his extreme finesse and attention to detail to his work, but also his forthcoming and generous sharing of his techniques which have raised the bar for a whole current crop of aspiring fine-art photographers. Thanks Joel! Also he’s a real nice guy.
Long exposure photography – what’s the attraction and why do you do it?
Right – long exposure photography. Definitely I feel that long exposures are my secret weapon. Which is ridiculous because it’s hardly a secret at all and really more and more people are doing it all the time. Sometimes to the point of beginning to feel like a fad as HDR photography was seeming like a couple years back.
Honestly 90 percent of the time if I don’t have my black glass on then I’m probably not making what I would consider to be a “serious” image! Long exposures used to be the norm 150 years ago and portrait photographers used to have to use head braces and chairs to keep the subjects bodies still for the duration of the exposure.
And sure, fast shutter speeds have given us all of the important images made of human history, but when it comes to landscapes there’s just something that seems to happen that’s magical when you let the light slowly seep onto the sensor versus blasting it with a quick burst.
That’s just me. Some optical scientist might say that the photons are captured the same way but it all comes down to how you feel about the thing and long exposures do that to me!
How do you decide whether to shoot in colour or black and white? Do you make up your mind at the time of shooting or during post-processing?
It’s become a lot more easy for me to approach the decision to shoot colour or black and white. If it’s a client that I’m working for then they will decide. If it’s my own work then 95 percent of the time it will be black and white.
Monochrome imagery has so many different important virtues to me now that I’ve wholly embraced it as a medium. Some of the considerations are that it’s timeless, it’s sometimes dreamlike – they’ll say that most people will dream in black and white. It’s undebatable when it comes to colour values, it relies on light contrast and composition and composing with this in mind drills down to the core of photography. I found that it was much easier to see compositions when considering its output in black and white and I feel like I’ve made giant steps in my quest to be a better artist since then.
There are a lot of seascapes in your portfolio. What is the attraction of the sea for you as a subject? What is your favourite place to take long exposure photos?
Well I’ve always lived near the ocean here in New England. I actually spent many of my childhood years growing up on a boat and learned to take my first steps as a toddler on a deck of a boat. Then for many years I was an enthusiastic windsurfer and wanted to move to Hawaii to pursue that professionally.
My whole family has gone to sea in the Coast Guard and my grandfathers were sea captains and even one was a pirate! So the sea goes deep in me and I never feel better then when I’m on it or near it. Therefore to combine the two loves of photography and the ocean is a no brainer. The environment here where I live is one of the more beautiful in the Northeast and home to one of the most popular national parks: Acadia National Park.
In the summer it’s packed with thousands of people but in the winter I have the place to myself and access to amazingly inspiring scenes. The winter also brings dramatic storms and dramatic light. So long as you have enough long johns and wool seaters on the imagery is abundant.
How does the place you live, and the climate, influence your photography?
When I moved back to the Acadia region back in 1999, after I found it initially in 1993 from briefly attending a local college, it became immediately apparent that I needed one of those new digital cameras to make pictures here. The dramatic coast and dynamic weather of an island that juts out into the North Atlantic was visually incredibly intense.
Also just prior to this time I had had an epiphany where I realised that I wanted a camera for a photographic project that I envisioned. I was in college at that time in my life and was moving to different apartments that were home while I lived there. I wanted to photograph the doors and entry ways that I was going through everyday. I didn’t really pursue that particular project but that was the first time that I had the realisation that I wanted to make a camera a part of my life. And I did – for 800 American dollars: a 3mp Olympus point and clicker. !! But I loved it.
Silence and solitude. Themes I’ve noticed in your work. Is this conscious?
Yes! Part of that is actually viscerally feeling that solitude by being in these places when there are no other souls around. So that might be simply the environment itself displaying itself. I don’t pretend to have any particularly special skills in photography, but it sure helps to put your camera in front of something that looks good!
And as far as the silence part goes – that goes back to the black glass filters that enables a longer exposure. It’s the eliminating certain elements from a scene that sometimes could otherwise detract from an image by adding distractions or the feeling of “noise”. Long exposures are not the end-all-be-all to my approach: sometimes there is fog!
How important is light in your imagery? What types of light do you prefer for long exposure photography?
Well light is as important to me as composition is, as having a camera is, as eating and breathing! I know, wiseguy eh?! Sorry – sometimes dramatic and perfect light isn’t as important if you have a particularly amazing subject demanding to be photographed, but it sure does help!
So some easy remedies to that are to just like putting yourself in front of an amazing scene – putting yourself in front of amazing light, and that amazing light happens early in the day and slightly less often than early but dependably more easy to experience: late in the day. And or during and before and after storms.
So after I found my life revolving around landscape photography I quickly embraced weather apps and tide charts and nautical forecasts for wave heights and the 14 day forecast and the Sun seeker and Moon seeker apps. I’ve pretty much become a weather buff in the last 10 years and get all excited when I hear a storm is coming!
Long exposure photography lends itself to all kinds of skies well. But since a typical long exposure will be in the area of 100 seconds or so up to about 400 seconds you have to consider what kind of effect you will achieve dependent on the speed and types of clouds that are moving over head. As well as the direction and shapes, the streaking of the clouds will have a dramatic overall effect to the way the final image is perceived. So it may be important to recompose with that in mind, to find the right balance.
Your photos show a mastery of composition. What are the principles behind the way you compose your photos?
Oh that’s a blushingly embarrassing compliment for me to hear, so thank you so much. Maybe it’s because of that reaction I’m feeling that shows how important that is to me. Because we aren’t documentarians, we are visual artists, and therein lies our responsibility to make the best decisions we can in the littlest things like framing a foot to the right in order to clean up the edges of the image or get a rock in the foreground in or out of the frame. I certainly consider composition before anything else, except maybe personal safety. One thing particularly that did give my creative eye a big boost was the addition to my kit of the 24mm tilt-shift lens which compositionally helps me to “see” through the view finder so much more easily.
Also my mother is a trained artist and is a very good watercolour artist. Ma taught me from the youngest age about looking and seeing. I swear when I am driving with people I’m always exclaiming things like: “you see that!” and often they didn’t – not trying to be a “wiseguy” again but I’m always looking and trying to see. I’m always composing images that I see while going through the world so that when I actually do have a camera up to my face and that big chunk of machine is in the way of your intent at least the “seeing” part is mostly taken care of!
And the masters of photography have done all the hard work for us – go research Edward Weston and Steiglitz and Steichen et al and as you are what you eat you’ll learn to see how to shoot! It’s all in the gut – a gut feeling that it’s right or wrong. Don’t cheat yourself by thinking it’s good enough when you might just be able to come back another time. And always have fun!
What is your approach to long exposure photography? Do you plan the shoot first, and try to take an image that matches your vision? Or do you go out without a fixed idea, and respond to what you find?
Depends on what exactly it is I’m looking to make – nothing beats the feeling of finding something special out in the world that you didn’t expect to find. So often I’ll like to plan an ultimate destination like a beach or something. And in the route I take to get there if something else pops up it very often more than not becomes a much more treasured image!
Usually I’m responding to the images I made just before now. The work I made last week will inform the direction I take this week. If I’d been out on the shores too much the week before now maybe I’ll look to the woods, or the trees, or look down or more closely with my macro. I don’t ever want to fall into a trap of working formulaically – that saps your creative juices more than anything else!
So I always try to think into the future and assess my direction, perhaps pursue a still life project, maybe create a new abstract body. That’s the fun about photography: there’s so much to do and so many pursuits that there are many lifetimes worth of learning and achievement to be had! Right then. Keep your batteries charged and hope to see you out there – Nate!
Here are some more of Nate’s Photos:
If you’d like to learn more about long exposure photography, my ebook Slow takes you through the creative possibilities of using slow shutter speeds, from blurring motion with a shutter speed of 1/30 second all the way to long exposure techniques using shutter speeds of five minutes or longer.
All photos in this interview are protected by copyright. Please contact the photographer for permission to use in any way.