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For some photographers, the end result is all that counts. However, for Chris Williams, it is as much about the process as it is the final product.
Having picked up a camera only 9 years ago, this American landscape and nature photographer has certainly made a name for himself quickly. His imagery departs from that of the usual, focusing more on the powerful aspects afforded by monochrome or black and white. From conservation to inspiration, this month we had the opportunity to chat with Chris to discover what makes his mind tick and the aspects of life that keep his creativity flowing.
Chris Williams is a landscape photographer who is based in the USA. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
Hello Chris and thank you for sitting down with us today to share a bit about yourself with our Iceland Photo Tours readers. Can you tell us how you came to develop an interest in photography?
Nature has always been a huge part of my life. My parents instilled an early love for the outdoors in me from about the time I could walk. We had a small piece of land over in the Hood Canal area, namely Lake Cushman, WA. I would get lost for hours on the small trails behind our lot. Something about the swaying trees and the damp ferns drew me into the unknown. I can still remember the smell of the forest floor rich with moss and dew crunching beneath my feet; memories like that greatly influenced my love for the outdoors later in life and had a huge impact on me at a young age.
My dad actually dabbled in photography a lot in his early 20’s and we had a few of his landscape images hanging in our house. In thinking about it now it definitely had an impact on me from an artistic perspective. He was also very much into watercolours and pastels and he actually sold a few of his pieces when I was younger. Watching him work on his art pieces; how he played with light, texture and lines really has influenced how I visualise and conceptualise my work today. My workflow has definitely been impacted by his work as well as the work of the Hudson River School painters such as Albert Bierstadt.
My parents gave me my first point and shoot; an old Fuji film camera, when I was fairly young and I could honestly completely lose track of time in the forests or even in my backyard taking photos of anything that peaked my interest. As a teen I took a step back from art and nature as I was heavily involved in sports and I was honestly so busy I didn’t make time for those things. It wasn’t until my early 20’s that I found myself back in my hiking boots. I picked up a Canon point and shoot just to document my various hiking trips and soon found myself trading in my boots and trekking poles for crampons and ice axes. The mountains were calling my name and I quickly found myself yearning for summit bids and epic adventure. It was then that I realised it was time to get back into photography. I had seen some amazing things and had so many stories but sometimes the words and descriptions wouldn’t suffice; the camera was the answer. I picked up my first DSLR nine years ago and I’ve never looked back.
The mountains were calling. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
Who influenced you in your early years of photography?
Early on, Ryan Dyar, Marc Adamus, David Thompson, Ted Gore and Alex Noriega all had huge impacts on me. A bit later, Sarah Marino’s black and white work inspired me to really focus on my own black and white work.
I owe a great deal to Ryan, he took me under his wing, so to speak, and showed me the ropes early on. He taught me about luminosity masks and different processing techniques which really helped me to shape my personal processing style. It’s something that I will forever be grateful for.
Are there any photographers these days whom you see as testing the creative boundaries and helping to push landscape photography into the future?
There are a number of amazing photographers that are pushing the limits in today’s crowded field, too many to name, if I’m being honest. The list below is by no means comprehensive, but it does include a number of personal favourites whom I feel are currently having an impact in the field.
I think Marc Adamus and Max Rive are still pushing extremely hard to explore unknown areas and to show us unique images that we have never seen. From the Andes in South American to the Himalaya, they are pushing their photography further and further. Ryan Dyar is still the pioneer in his own style and has utilised it to show us a view of Africa that none of us have ever seen before. David Thompson is still pushing boundaries in everything he does, unique compositions and his signature style offer some very unique views of the desert Southwest and abroad. Erin Babnik and Enrico Fassati’s work in Europe is some of the best out there. They both have very unique processing styles and presentations that each make landscapes come to life in their own right.
Sarah Marino and Ron Coscorrosa show us inspiring compositions in unique conditions that many of us haven’t seen before. Their winter work in Yellowstone is one of the best collections I’ve ever seen. Sarah’s black and white work is some of the best out there and offers a window into the modern era of the early photographic style. Candace Dyar’s focus on conservation and defining her own personal style has been inspiring. Lastly, Perri Schelat has offered us some very unique views of well known locations. Her processing is more minimalistic, which is refreshing, given today’s tendency to push processing into more of an artistic realm.
Chris is inspired by unique views of the world. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
How would you describe your approach to landscape photography and how do you differentiate yourself from other landscape photographers?
I think I have developed an eye for unique compositions and I’m not afraid to focus on scenes and types of imagery that may not be ‘big sellers’. My black and white work has pushed me to rethink how I compose, take and process my images. Nearly three years ago I embarked on a journey solely in black and white photography. It was a huge risk given that it isn’t a mainstream form of photography and my print sales would be impacted, but I decided to pursue it to further my creative and photographic development. To say that it has been a rewarding change would be an understatement.
How would you describe the power of landscape photography and what influence does it have upon nature and the world? Can photography make a difference to how people view the world and their environmental consciousness?
My goal is to create imagery that resonates with the viewer and inspires them. I think it’s also important to understand the impact that photographs can have.
Once a unique and new location becomes popular through the photographs that we produce the area is often subjected to hoards of photographers and visitors that have no regard for the landscape itself. I’ve seen this time and time again in the Columbia River Gorge of Washington and Oregon, the Washington coast and in the pristine meadows of the Cascade mountain range in the Pacific Northwest. Waterfalls and meadows tend to be subjected to some of the harshest treatment. Wildflowers and vegetation are often trampled for the ‘perfect’ composition.
As landscape photographers, both amateur and professional, we need to be conservationists. We need to focus on teaching and living the aptly named ‘leave no trace principles’. It’s important that photographers, and the visitors that they inspire, take care of the lands that we are so passionate about through sustainable photographic principles. I work hard to ensure that the places that I photograph will be there for future generations to enjoy, and I encourage everyone whom visits these areas to do the same.
Landscapes are in a constant ebb and flow, be it from naturally occurring events, or human impact. My number one goal is to take the human element out of the equation. Sustainable landscape photography principles and leave no trace practices are the cornerstone to my teaching methods and my thoughts on moving the field forward in a positive direction. Our connection with nature couldn’t be more important than it is now, and my hope is that my photographs inspire others to learn, explore and to respect the lands that we are lucky enough to call home.
Chris hopes that his photographs will inspire others to learn. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
What’s the key to making a great landscape photograph? Is it the same as making a great photograph in general?
There are a number of technical aspects that can make a photograph successful; subject, leading lines, overall composition and light placement are all extremely important, but I think it really comes down to what your goals are for the image. Is the image meant to document a natural event? Is the goal to evoke emotion and present the viewer with an artistic view of a beautiful place? I think you, as the photographer, need to define what the image means to you prior to taking the image.
First and foremost I take images that inspire my creative spark. I don’t take images for my potential clients or customers. I take images that drive me to become a better photographer and images that get me excited to be a photographer. If you go into a photography trip with goals or a certain project in mind it can help to shape how and what you choose to photograph, but I think it’s important to realise that plans change and conditions may dictate changing it up a bit. Going with the flow and never taking things too seriously are critical to my creative process. In short, if the light or conditions suck, still take those photos because you never know what you might discover during the photographic process.
Do you think there is a place that every photographer must explore, where there is something that they should photograph? What can they learn from visiting this place?
I’m guilty of wanting to capture the icons, the photos of locations that first inspired me, but I think that it’s important to venture outside of your comfort zone. Explore what’s in your backyard. There are so many amazing places off the beaten path that are rarely photographed because they have become overlooked. My biggest piece of advice to new and seasoned photographers is to explore. Visiting unique and unknown places can teach you to go further and push yourself to think outside of the box both photographically and mentally, but tread lightly. It’s your responsibility to conserve those areas for future generations. Leave with only photographs and the trail dust on your boots.
It's important to venture outside of your comfort zone. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
With landscape photography, there is always the debate of colour versus black and white. You’ve demonstrated an affinity for producing images in both styles. What makes you choose one over the other, and is the photographic process different?
This is honestly a pretty loaded question. I think that all photos can work well in monochrome, to a certain extent, dependent upon how you process them and what your final artistic vision is for the photo. I think the ones that work the best though are photos that are dynamic in light, shadows and contrast. Photos that achieve a great deal of depth through layering and photos that may not have that dynamic colour range that you’re looking for are also great candidates for a black and white treatment.
I wouldn’t say that the overall photographic process is different but a black and white conversion places a very strong emphasis on your composition. Since colour is irrelevant, you really have to make sure that your composition is fairly strong to begin with. Some compositions just won’t do well in a conversion. If the light is relatively flat or if the image is largely one colour with no repeating patterns or shapes a black and white conversion just may not work. Don’t force it. It’s important to not only realise the strengths of the medium, but also the weaknesses as well. If the black and white conversion feels forced, chances are it probably is.
Pay attention to your composition and how the light and shadow emphasise or detract from it; this will be critical to the overall success of your image. Personally, I think images can be even more impactful within the black and white medium and that portrayal of light, mood, atmosphere and detail can be just as effective in a world without colour. If you’re looking for a much deeper dive on the topic, I have written a very comprehensive piece on black and white imagery.
Light, mood, atmosphere and detail can be portrayed just as effectively in a world without colour. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
What do you want viewers to take away from your work?
A photograph is a powerful thing and as a photographer the ultimate goal is to bring life, to evoke emotion and to initiate a spark within the viewer. Each and every exposure has personal meaning to me, be it symbolic, raw or natural and I want my viewers to feel that same spark.
How has photography transformed you as a human being? What are some of the key differences that you have identified in yourself before and after you began taking photographs?
I think photography has transformed me into even more of a conservationist than I previously was. Whenever I venture into an area to photograph it, I think of the potential impact that I have on it. It’s a constant struggle to even decide to post an image knowing that posting it could result in photographers and hikers visiting the area that do not share the same ‘leave no trace’ principles that I do. I often refrain from posting locations of lesser known areas in order to help conserve them for future generations. It’s sad that I even have to consider those things, but that’s the era that we live in. My only hope is that future generations will understand how fragile these ecosystems and areas are, and how big of an impact, both positive and negative, we can have on them.
Photography has transformed Chris into more of a conservationist than he already was. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
What are your top 5 tips from the field that you can share to help aspiring photographers improve their work?
I think one of the biggest mistakes that most new and aspiring photographers make is not making a photograph their own. They see a composition or processing style that they like and for better or worse they copy it. Use processing styles and photographs as inspiration for the photographs that you create. Create your own processing style using the tools that others can teach you. Go to those locations that the images have inspired you to visit but look for new and unique compositions that you can make your own. My top five tips are as follows:
Be inspired by other photographers, but seek to differentiate yourself from them. Go to locations with their composition in mind, but don’t copy or imitate it. Create your own!
Learn from processing tutorial videos, but develop your own unique processing style using their tools.
When you’re at a location don’t get stuck on one composition; explore every composition possible in the area. Get rid of the tripod and explore. Your catalog of images will thank you later.
Don’t get stuck on one lens. Change lenses and focal lengths often while at a location. Go from a wide angle lens to a telephoto lens and explore different compositions in the area.
Be prepared. Conditions change and having the appropriate gear can make or break a photography trip. Carry your survival essentials and make sure to bring plenty of batteries, memory cards and cleaning supplies for your photography gear.
Conditions change, so be prepared when shooting landscapes. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
So far, which day of your life has been the most memorable for you? Did you manage to capture it in your photos?
That’s honestly a very tough question. The first image that comes to mind comes from the day that I proposed to my wife and created my image ‘The Proposal’ on Second Beach, WA. It was and is an extremely memorable day and it’s an image that I’m very proud of as well. The tide pool in the front half of the composition in that image is never identical day in and day out, so it makes the image a bit more unique.
There are three other images that resonate with me a great deal, two of which come from Rialto Beach, WA. That beach holds a very special place in my heart as it was sort of a sanctuary for me during difficult times. My favourite sea stack at that beach recently collapsed, but before it did I managed to put together two black and white images from two different trips to the beach that I’m extremely proud of; Amongst Giants and Monolith. The final image that I’m extremely proud of came from one of my first big photography trips in the Columbia River Gorge. This black and white image is entitled ‘Remembrance’ holds a great deal of value and meaning for me because it comes from the old lookout at Metlako Falls. A landslide took out that lookout, so that composition really doesn’t exist anymore and the recent Eagle Creek Wildfire forever changed the geography and vegetation in that area. The three above mentioned images can never be recreated due to significant changes in the areas they were taken in.
It's important not to limit yourself creatively. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
What do you see as the new horizons for landscape photography in the future?
I think we’re going to be seeing more and more photography diverging from reality. Composites and blends are becoming the new normal and I’m 100% okay with that as long as the photographer is honest about them. I think it’s important to not limit ourselves creatively or to be bound by a set of photographic rules either self imposed or imposed by the photographic community itself. There are a number of photographers that are currently bending reality with their images and I often find their work to be very inspiring. I think we will also be seeing a lot more drone photography as the resolution of the on board cameras improves and the prices come down.
Since moving to the desert, Chris has begun to focus more on colour photography. Photo by: 'Chris Williams'.
What are some projects or ideas that you have in the works?
I’m looking forward to doing a bit more wildlife photography and deep night sky imaging (think nebulas and galaxies) this year. It’s a departure from what I normally do, but both projects have me very excited.
Are there any exciting projects that we can expect from you in the coming year?
Since moving to the desert Southwest I have begun focusing more on colour work. My desert colour series is going to focus on the variety of colours, textures and minimalistic scenes that the desert has to offer. I’m actually very excited to continue with this project in 2020 and beyond.
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