Interviews

Michael Blanchette

From the his home base in New England in the North East of the United States, Michael Blanchette attempts to capture a sense of tranquility, mystery, and simplicity in his work which extends across the Colorado Plateau, down to the Southern Appalachian Mountains, and over to parts of Europe.  His photos have been featured in major publications such as Digital Photographer, Mother Earth News, and GEO Voyage (French equivalent of National Geographic Traveler) and his client list includes The Orvis Company, The National Geographic Society, and Shearson Publishing.   


Welcome to intrepid.photos Michael!   Your photos seem to convey a sense of connection with the landscape that only comes from spending a lot of time in the outdoors.  How long each year would you spend in the mountains particularly your home base around the New England region of the United States?

My outings are very weather-dependent, so the amount of time I spend outdoors varies greatly from week to week. But on average, I would guess that I’m out photographing around New England some 100 days per year. In addition, I spend about 30 days each year photographing outside of New England.

Some of my excursions involve a single sunrise, sunset or night photo, while others require a multi-day stay and, several times a year, include a planned multi-week expedition far from home. From my experience, the best photos are often the fruit of repeated visits to familiar locations. If a location is worth exploring, then I keep coming back until I’ve captured the scene I first envisioned.

You seem to be drawn into the mountains more frequently than other locations, what makes mountain landscape photography so special?Lago Antorno is a small lake in the Dolomites region of northern Italy. On a calm day, the Dolomites and clouds reflect upon the surface of the lake. These pinnacles are part of the Cadini di Misurina. The photo was taken at sunset on a late October evening.

Since my prior career was in computer software, I spent many years working long hours in offices with little time for the great outdoors. In a way, landscape photography allows me to make up for lost time. Living in New England, our mountains and abundant seacoast are natural destinations that I can access time and time again under varying conditions and throughout the four seasons. I’m especially fond of the Green Mountains of Vermont and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Although not far from civilization, these mountains still exude a sense of wilderness, serenity, and beauty.

I’ve also photographed the awesome Colorado Rockies, the Canadian Rockies, the Southern Appalachians, the Dolomites of northern Italy, the Arctic mountains of northern Norway, and the rugged mountains of Iceland. Each of these places has a unique character and identity that I strive to capture. Standing at the foot of a mountain, I feel humbled by its grandeur, inspired by its raw beauty, and calmed by its historical presence. Give me a dramatic sky behind a well-lit mountain, with a mirror reflection in a lake or pond, and I turn giddy with excitement.

What does a typical photo expedition involve?

All my photo outings are preceded by a lot of planning. Even a mere sunrise or sunset is planned in detail. Since many of my excursions involve a multi-hour drive across New England, I’m careful not to waste time and effort chasing after mediocre conditions. I’ve also photographed many of these locations before, so I only take the leap if I’m convinced that conditions look truly promising.  Part of planning involves using software tools like Google Earth, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, Stellarium (for night photos) weather forecasts, and tide charts. In order to choose my subjects, I use these tools to verify the position and angle of the sun/moon/Milky Way, check weather predictions from several sources, look at graphic weather maps to determine cloud positioning, and in the case of seascapes, ensure that the tide level will work well for the desired composition and subject. Once on site, I scout the subjects and locations on my list to make final adjustments to plans. Then I come back at the appropriate time for the shot. Quite often, I walk away with photos that sit on my hard drive without ever being developed. But every once in a while, the elements all come together to create a stunning scene with great light that makes it all worthwhile.

Did you have a passion for photography from an early age, or is it something you developed later in life?

Glamaig is a cone-shaped mountain in the Red Hills of northwest Scotland. The old stone bridge on the left was built around 1820. This image was made at sunset as the clouds cast a reflection in a pond.

I was raised on a poor farm in the Province of Quebec, Canada. The only camera we had in the house at the time was my father’s old metal box camera that sat empty and unused in a bureau drawer.  My interest in photography began in my early 20s when our first child was due. I wanted a good camera to photograph our new baby, and so bought my first film SLR camera (a Minolta). New to photography, I decided to take an evening course in photography and rapidly caught the bug. Later, I upgraded to a better Nikon film camera, but was happy to endorse the digital age as soon as it arrived. My first digital camera was an exciting Nikon 2MP camera that needed a truck of batteries!  The digital age was a perfect fit for me: it allowed me to use more of my right brain while leveraging my left brain experience in dealing with the more technical aspects of photography. I can strive for creativity while still applying the analytical skills I developed throughout my software career.  As a co-founder of a small software company, I had the luxury to”retire” from the industry while I was still quite young. Previously, I would photograph only if and when my demanding career permitted it. But suddenly, I was able to spend the bulk of my time chasing the passion that persists to this day.

Where or do you get your photographic inspiration from and do you follow any other photographers that you particularly admire?

Most of my inspiration comes from nature itself, and the fervent desire to capture my favorite subjects under the most stunning conditions possible. I make no claim about being a documentary photographer — I aim to produce art that reflects both natural and manmade subjects in their very best state.  I follow the work of many contemporary photographers who consistently produce awe-inspiring work. Many might say that their inspiration comes from pioneers like Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. But mine comes more from contemporary photographers who stand on the shoulders of these historic figures, pushing the envelope further into the digital realm.  I admire leading nature photographers like Ian Plant, Kurt Budlinger, Kevin McNeal, Marc Adamus, Chip Phillips, and Brad Goldpaint (for his amazing night photography). I’m also inspired by the work of many European photographers including Tom Mackie, Alexandre Deschaumes, and Paolo De Faveri.

Do you have an overriding philosophy on life and if so how does it influence your photography?Nichols Pond is a reservoir located in Woodbury, Vermont. A precarious stone perch known as Nichols Ledge lies on a cliff over the eastern tip of the pond, providing a birds-eye view of the pond and neighboring forest. In autumn, colorful trees encircle the reservoir on all sides. This sunset photo was taken at the peak of fall foliage.

It there’s one lesson I’ve learned over the years, it’s that persistence will always trump talent. I’m not saying that raw talent is not important, but rather that talent by itself is insufficient. You may be the most creative photographer in the world, but unless you keep going back to the same places over and over again, you’re not likely to capture those places at their best. So, I work hard to plan my excursions and keep going back until I have the image in hand that meets my expectations.

You have been featured in major publications such as Digital Photographer, Mother Earth News, and GEO Voyage.  Is publication something that you have actively pursued or has it developed as a natural consequence of your work?

My prior career was in a technical field, so I tend to pay too little attention to marketing (much to my detriment). I guess there’s still a part of me that sees self-promotion as just a means of showing off, although I need to get over the sentiment soon and get on with more aggressive marketing!  Over the last few years, I’ve been lucky to get into some mainstream publications, including in a National Geographic (NG) book and on the cover of an NG greeting card. I also had several photos featured in GEO Voyage, which is the French equivalent of National Geographic Traveler Magazine. In all cases, the publishers saw my work posted on social media and came looking for me without my help. This is something I’m looking to change in the future.

Which photo is your most popular photo and why do you think people like it?Nubble Light stands about 100 yards from the tip of Cape Neddick Point near York Beach, Maine. The lighthouse went into operation in 1879 and remains functional to this day. Between Thanksgiving and New Year, Holiday lights cover the structures on Nubble Island, creating much photogenic appeal. This image was made on a full moon evening, adding to the seasonal drama.

 

My most popular photo is of Nubble Light on Cape Neddick, Maine, entitled “Moon Over Nubble”. It was taken at dusk in December 2013 as white Christmas lights and fresh snow adorned the lighthouse and surrounding buildings, while the moon rose through thin clouds over the lighthouse. I had no inkling that the photo would be so popular until I posted it on Facebook the following morning, and watched it go viral. I’ve since sold hundreds of prints of that image. It’s also available from the Nubble Light Store, has been licensed for use on greeting cards, and is included in an upcoming history book on American lighthouses by Eric Jay Dolin titled “Brilliant Beacons”.  The reasons behind its popularity probably include a seasonal appeal, and a composition that combines an unencumbered view of all structures with fresh snow and a full moon.

Kirkjufell Mountain is located on the north coast of the Snaefellsness Peninsula in western Iceland. The mountain has become popular among photographers in recent years due to its sheer beauty and widely published photographs. This photo was taken from the west side of the mountain. The aurora appears to be spewing from the top of the volcano-like mountain.Which photo of yours means the most to you personally?

This is a tough question because my answer changes regularly. Right now, I’m drawn to a photo from February 2015 that I took in Iceland, entitled “Auroral Eruption”. The photo features Kirkjufell Mountain with the Northern Lights seeming to “spew” from the top of the old volcano.  Kirkjufell Mountain is located on the north coast of the Snaefellsness Peninsula in western Iceland. The photo was taken from the less-popular west side of the mountain, so we had this view all to ourselves. We stood on shore in awe, watching the aurora borealis dance and shift shape every few minutes. I took the photo as when a strong band of light became vertically aligned with the volcanic mountain.

What would you like your viewers to take away from your work?

The feedback I most enjoy hearing from viewers is “wow, I felt like I was there”. This tells me that I may have succeeded in evoking emotion, which I consider the ultimate goal of photography.  I also use the term “serenity in landscapes” to describe my work because I enjoy creating photos that express a mix of beauty, simplicity, and a touch of mystery to quell the mind and inspire the heart.

If you could pass on one critical tip or technique to someone, what would it be? 
I think we all have a tendency to brutally compare ourselves with other photographers. My advice is to learn as much as possible from experienced photographers, but never compare your work with others — it’s a slippery slope fraught with envy and frustration. Accept the fact that there will always be someone else out there who has produced a better image. Learn from them but focus on creating your own brand through your unique perspective, choice of subjects, and processing techniques.

Are your compositions pre-meditated or developed on the fly?

As I mentioned earlier in the interview, I plan every shoot in detail and usually envision several compositions in advance of going on location. The process tends to increase the odds of getting more of the photos I want. However, everything can and often does change once I arrive in the field.  If conditions are different than I had anticipated, I will quickly adapt to take advantage of new possibilities. This happens quite often, and some of my best photos were taken under unexpected conditions. In that sense, adapting quickly to unforeseen shifts in nature is far more important than sticking to a failed plan. Nature creates the best options, while the plan becomes a mere backup.

What clichés in photography do you try and avoid?

One of the cliches I avoid is extreme HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing. With the advent of digital cameras and multiple exposures, powerful software now exists to merge an extreme range of tones down into a single frame. When done properly, the use of HDR techniques should not discernible to the viewer, thereby retaining the essential element of believability. But when used indiscriminately, it can lead to excessive contrast and garish saturation that diminishes the credibility of the image.  When shooting a high dynamic range scene, I always bracket the exposures and manually balance the tones in post-processing using Luminosity Masks, thereby avoiding HDR software altogether. I find that this approach is more likely to yield images that remain both realistic and credible.

Ravens Nest is a seaside cliff on the Schoodic Peninsula, within Acadia National Park, Maine. The cliff lies between West Pond and Winter Harbor, Maine. This photo was taken in late June as the Milky Way hovered above the narrow tip of Ravens Nest. The green tint above the horizon is a natural phenomenon called airglow. A long 20-minute exposure was taken to bring out details in the cliff and water.

What equipment do you take on a shoot?

I always shoot from a tripod so a solid and reliable tripod and ballhead are essential to my style of photography. After trying various brands, I’ve settled on a Really Right Stuff tripod and ballhead. I take two camera bodies with me in the field. Currently, my main camera is a Nikon D810 and my backup (and also night) camera is a Nikon D750. I carry three or four lenses, depending on the type of location. I always carry a Nikon 14-24mm lens, a Nikon 24-70mm lens, and a Nikon 70-200 lens. If very close foregrounds are likely, I may also carry a Nikon 24mm tilt-shift lens. I rarely require a focal length longer than 200mm, but if I do, I will bring my Nikon 300mm lens along as well.  When traveling through airports to reach further destinations, I only carry the two camera bodies and the basic three lenses so as to lighten the weight of my Lowepro backpack.

In addition to cameras and lenses, I also carry an assortment of filters that include a Lee circular polarizer, and assortment of Lee hard and soft graduated neutral density filters, as well as Lee 6-stop and 10-stop neutral density filters to slow down the shutter speed for longer exposures. Additional accessories include an LCD loupe that I use to verify the accuracy of my exposure and focus. I also use a wireless remote to trip the shutter as a means of reducing camera shake.

Can you elaborate on your post production workflow?

I’m an avid Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop user. I’ve been using Lightroom since its very first beta release and count it among the very best software tools designed by and for photographers. I use Lightroom as my library management system to hold both processed and unprocessed photos. Once a photo has been imported, renamed to my convention, and selected for processing, I proceed to make global adjustments to the file while still in Lightroom. Here, I mainly adjust overall White Balance, Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, and Tone Curve (for added contrast).  I do little else to the file in Lightroom before moving on to Photoshop, where I will apply more localized adjustments. I often use two Photoshop plug-ins during post-processing. The first is the Google Nik Collection that adds more photo filters to Photoshop, and the other is a Luminosity Masks plug-in from Tony Kuiper that adds a panel to create refined selections based on tone range. In the Google Nik Collection, I mainly use Color Efex Pro for local contrast adjustments, Silver Efex Pro to develop black-and-white photos, and Dfine for noise reduction when necessary.  Luminosity Masks is an advanced technique for creating selections that encompass only the pixels falling within a given range of tones (i.e. luminosity values). The approach greatly improves the accuracy of local adjustments when compared with more tedious and less precise manual selections. Luminosity masks are an important tool in my arsenal — I use them in processing most photos. Once I’ve finished applying Photoshop adjustments, the resulting TIFF file is saved back into the Lightroom catalog, where it will sharpened and further adjusted for printer output.

What locations are on your wish list for an extended photographic adventure?

Valensole is the heart of lavender country in the region of Provence, France. This photo was taken at sunrise deep in a lavender field. The sun lit remnants of passing storm clouds just before crossing over the horizon.I think we increase our chances of producing great images if we have a good understanding of a place. In that regard, I rarely pick a destination without planning to go back at least several times. So, my wish list always includes familiar locations that I’ve already photographed. For example, the Rockies and Southwest are permanent fixtures on my bucket list although I’ve been there many times. My wish list also includes European destinations. When I was in the software industry, I traveled to Europe regularly, leading me to develop a deep affection for the beauty-filled continent. These days, I go on photo excursions to Europe 2-3 times per year as a means of differentiating my work. France, Italy, Scotland, Iceland, and Norway are all repeat destinations on my list.

So, what NEW destinations are on my bucket list? Well, I want to photograph along the coast of Atlantic Canada, including on Prince Edward Island and the Magdalen Islands. In Europe, I want to photograph the coast of Brittany, the tulips and windmills in Holland, and the Julian Alps in Slovenia.

You joke about being a lowly-paid photographer and having a previous career to support your activities.  Do you think it’s possible for new photographers entering the field today to earn a living out of photography?

There are many nature and landscape photographers out there making a living from their work, so it remains possible to survive on photography. But it’s getting harder all the time. I know quite a few professional landscape photographers and they all say the same thing: prints are no longer a large percentage of their income so they’re obliged to chase other revenue sources. For most, this means conducting photo workshops on a year-round basis, often in places far from their home base.

How important is social media in your strategy of deriving an income from photography related activities? What recommendations would you have for someone starting out in the industry?

These days, social media circles are both crucial and unavoidable. A photographer without a social media presence is at a great disadvantage. Like it or not, social media has now become the primary vehicle for sharing and promoting our work, and therefore reaching potential customers. There are so many different social media networks that the first challenge is to pick the few that target the types of customers we wish to attract. In my case, I quickly learned that Facebook was my most effective social media outlet (by far). Most of my leads still come from Facebook.  There are several tempting social media sites that post fabulous photos but generate zero leads. These sites tend to target other photographers. And as we know, photographers never buy anything from other photographers, so I put these in the category of “vanity” social media sites.  My approach to social media is very simple: I only post my best photos, and I post regularly. I see no point in posting photos that could degrade viewer perception just to put something on the page. But I do find that follower loyalty tends to increase by posting on a reasonably consistent frequency.

Anything else you would like to pass on to the readers?

I’m often asked what camera I use, as though the gear itself is largely responsible for my photos. But choice of camera is rarely a big contributor to good photography. In my opinion, the most important factor is patience — the capacity to accept disappointment without getting unduly upset.  Outdoor photography is highly dependent on nature, which is inherently finicky and changeable. There have been countless occasions when I’ve returned home empty-handed due to unforeseen conditions. Accept failure as a normal part of the creative process, and relish the occasional successes.

Where can people go to look at your work and get in contact with you (please provide website and social media links)?

You can visit my website at michaelblanchette.com and anyone can email me directly via the link at my website.   I respond to most emails within a day unless I’m traveling.

My more active social media links include Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.
MIKE-BLANCHETTE-SMALL

 

All photos in this article remain the copyright of Michael Blanchette and have been reproduced with permission.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Bernita mcclure November 22, 2016 at 2:15 pm

    As u kno Michael, I LOVE your photography! My love of Maine comes full circle when I see places that u capture in real life. Just mesmerizes me!

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