Today, I have the honor of presenting an interview that comes from the Pacific Northwest. Belinda Greb is a talented photographer who excels at capturing those parts of nature and wildlife that are hidden from so many of us. As you browse through her photos below, I think you’ll agree that she’s quite accomplished at her craft.
Belinda, thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us and thank you so much for all your thoughtful responses. It’s not every day we get a behind the scenes view of someone with such skill and expertise.
1. Can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself?
I grew up thinking of myself as someone who was strung between two worlds, belonging to neither and seeking out a place I would belong. I’m half Chinese and half Scotch-Irish and Danish, so growing up I realized I was perceived as being different, which perhaps ends up making one so. I have a master’s in English literature but was too shy to teach and not disciplined enough to write my version of the great American novel. I’m analytical but a dreamer, a writer of poetry who spent years being a corporate pawn. The jobs I had were anathemas to me but the experiences taught me about what I wanted to be and eventually about what I want to do with my life. You might say I am a slow learner.
I grew up in Southern California in rural Calabasas off of Mulholland Highway, so I was surrounded by nature, and wandering out in those hills with the family dogs was the one thing that gave me a sense of belonging and the sense of freedom that I continue to need in my life. Although I am not religious in the conventional sense of the world, I always have had a spiritual quest to understand life and what it is we’re supposed to be doing here.
2. Where do you call home?
I currently live in Vida, Oregon, a small rural area east of Eugene, Oregon. It is a place rich with natural beauty for which I am thankful. However, I consider Southern California to be my real emotional home, at least California as it was when I was growing up. The area had beautiful mountains and beaches, great art museums, and I loved the diversity and expressiveness of the population. I’ve also lived on the Upper West Side in Manhattan and loved that energy as well. I don’t know if I could deal with the crowds anymore and unfortunately both places are prohibitively expensive to live in now.
3. After browsing through your website, I see that you’ve built up an extensive collection of wonderful photography. What is it that led you towards this field and how long have you been working in it?
I signed up for a photography class in high school but dropped it after I discovered my dad’s Leica, which I had planned on using, didn’t work. I remember going around taking lots of photographs only to find out that nothing had developed. Pun intended.
I did get a SLR Pentax with my first trip to Europe, and loved it, and later a Canon A2e, but only in the past several years have I really started focusing on photography as an art form. I attribute that shift to feeling freed when I went digital (not having to worry about whether the right film was in the camera, free to experiment without thinking of the expense of development). I love not having to wait for the results, seeing the metadata (helps one understand what was right or wrong), and having control in the post-processing phase.
I always have longed for expression in some form, whether it is writing, painting, or photography, as a process of discovery and sharing.
4. How did you go about learning photography? Are you self taught or formally taught? Where have you found the majority of information you use today?
I’m definitely self-taught. For years I used my camera as basically a point and shoot, dealing only with composition and focus. When I became more interested in trying to get better, I sought out books by nature or wildlife photographers, as well as web sites and videos. Regarding the back end of photography or post processing, I had already learned Photoshop as I worked for a graphics center in New York, but vastly improved those skills by signing up for Lynda.com after I returned to Oregon. I also learn constantly by practice – review and analysis of mistakes and successes. I think that learning is a lifelong process.
5. How do you go about deciding on where your next photo shoot is going to be? What does it need to offer for you to place it on your short list?
I tend to take my camera anytime I got out for a hike or anywhere different, just in case I see something that inspires me, and that could be a landscape, birds, animals, flowers, but sometimes it could be coming across a weird looking mushroom or a huge wasps’ nest in a tree, or a beautiful fallen leaf.
Sometimes, I get fixated on trying to get a good shot of a certain thing I’m trying to master, like a dragonfly or a hummingbird in flight, and that will be my impetus – on my current wish list: a grizzly bear and a closer wolf shot.
As for planning a trip that’s primarily about photography, I am especially keen on places where wildlife can be found in natural habitats and beautiful scenic landscapes. Oregon is beautiful, but often I hunger for a new palette – my area is heavy on green, so a different geographical environment is a plus. I would also love to revisit places I traveled to in the past when I had only a film camera and less developed skills.
6. While browsing through the photo galleries on your website, I noticed some really great nature shots, accompanied by wildlife and other interesting subjects. What’s your favorite type of subject to shoot and why?
Initially I focused on landscapes, but as I’ve evolved, I realize I get the highest level of intense satisfaction when I am photographing wildlife. I love animals and learning about their behavior. It’s becomes about feeling a connection with the animals, not only out in the field but also later when looking at them on my computer screen. I see things we normally can’t observe with the naked eye, first because the telephoto brings me closer in to the animal, and the magnification of a computer screen even closer, but secondly, because in the fleet instant of the capture, I might not notice something I notice later, like the animal’s expression or the particular posture of the animal. I recently was taking pictures of an osprey with her young, and later going through a series of images, I noticed the almost tender looks between the mother and one of the young. I created a collage of three images to share that discovery.
I don’t have one of those heavy monster lenses, and even if I could afford one, I no longer have the strength to carry one around. I also believe it’s important to respect an animal’s boundaries, keeping both photographer and animal safe. As a result of those limitations, I’ve recently accepted that I won’t be one of those wildlife photographers who are always able to show every awesome feather on a bird in flight or every hair on an elk. What I can try to show instead is the animal in its habitat or showing some behavior or interaction with other animals or as a sentient being. This is a fairly recent acceptance on my part and this focus of intent is something I can be quite happy about. Regarding nature shots, there’s a lot of beauty overlooked because it’s not dramatic or large. I enjoy following the words from American Beauty, “Look Closer.”
7. What do you think is the most challenging aspect of photographing nature and wildlife?
First me. My preparedness. I get so excited about seeing the animal, that sometimes I forget the basics, like should I increase the ISO, open up the aperture, close it down. I’m just trying to stay with the animal as it moves about. Secondly, lighting. Will I have enough lighting to allow a high enough shutter speed to capture movement; will the low light affect the camera’s auto-focusing performance? Animals are living beings and there always seems to be movement, even if it is a slight shifting of head or opening a beak.
Lighting is especially important in Oregon as for nine months of the year there tends to be less light in most other places. Thirdly, in a new unknown area, trying to find out where the animals you seek will be and gaining proximity within reason and deciding if I should wait in a location or move on.
8. Have you ever had a bad experience while you were out photographing? If so, what made it so negative?
No, not really. I’ve had disappointing experiences where I haven’t come away with much, but the upside is I’ve been out and about in a beautiful setting. I’ve fallen, but not to the point where I’ve been badly hurt and I haven’t damaged my equipment. My rental car got stuck on a muddy dirt road, but some passersby helped me push the luckily very compact car clear, and I post-holed while taking a hike through snow, but remained calm and managed to get my leg free. The only somewhat negative experience was a recent trip to a bird refuge where I must have gotten dehydrated or had a bit of heat stroke, and felt like I was about to die or at least pass out. It was a bit scary, but I sat down, rested and then made my way back to the car.
9. What type of camera(s) do you shoot with? What’s your favorite lens?
I have a Canon 5D Mark III with a 24-70mm 2.8L lens which I use for landscapes. Last year I got a second-hand 7D to get more range with my 100-400mm 4.5L lens and because I hate switching lenses in the field. I like the zoom lenses for flexibility in the field and that is fortunate for me since I can’t afford prime. If I only want to take one camera/lens on a particular day and don’t have a preordained subject, I find I lean towards the camera with the telephoto.
10. What is your favorite photography accessory?
My favorite photograph accessory would be no accessory, especially as I get older and things seem to get heavier. I prefer hand holding a camera, as it is easier to react and move. However, my tripod is my most necessary accessory, especially when shooting landscapes in low light, with a shutter release cable.
11. What’s your photo editing software of choice? How important is post processing to you?
I use Lightroom for most preliminary processing for raw files but Photoshop is my mainstay. I shoot in neutral Adobe RGB and really like Nik Collection (used as a plug-in) for tonal adjustments, normal noise reduction, and output sharpening, often using layer masks to selectively apply each step. When I want to make an image more painterly, I will often use Topaz Impressions and blend in the effect with layers masks.
I do feel post processing is important; it’s the digital darkroom as is often said. I spend at least 20-30 minutes and oftentimes more on each image I’ve decided to use (which might be 10-15 out of 100). On more artistic work, I can easily spend 4 hours. When I had a film camera, I was often be disappointed by the drug store machine processing of my images.
12. What piece of equipment would you most like to acquire that you don’t have yet?
I would love to get a Macro lens. My whole perception of insects has changed (for the better) due to some great macro photography by fellow photographers. It’s a whole new world to explore.
13. How do you stay motivated to continue photographing?
I’m easily motivated by beauty in any form, and always by wildlife, but I do hit the occasional wall of feeling like it’s the same old same old. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes I really need a new palette to work with so I will make an effort to take a day trip over to the coast or drive up to Portland or that offers a change of scenery that might shake me up! I also try to do some creative work, working with multi-exposures or composites. And if need be, I sometimes take a break until I’m dying to pick up the camera and get out there again.
14. What advice could you offer someone who would like to change their life and get into photography?
Just do it! Well not quite that fast. Find a way to do it would be better advice. It sounds trite but so often we can talk ourselves out of things. Since my early twenties, I’ve been inspired by this verse that is often attributed to Goethe but is really a loose translation of Goethe by John Anster:
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back– Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”
I love that quote. I try now to concentrate on making something happen. I’m not always successful at this and I’m by no means a rash person, but it’s easy to say next year or when I retire, but at that future point there will be another obstacle and another excuse. I wish I had been this concentrated on photography years ago when I was younger and stronger. The importance of living life in the way you want to live it becomes more apparent the older you get.
15. How do you keep up to date? Do you regularly visit any photography related websites for inspiration or learning? If so, which ones?
I do click on links in tweets to learn new techniques or watch youtube videos. I loved Lynda.com though I wish you didn’t have to subscribe, but I did for a three-month period and it was worth it. I don’t have regular websites I go to, although Cambridge in Colour is one that comes to mind as a favorite. But I might see something written about a new technique like focus stacking, and then I’ll google and research it from there. I’ll try it, why not? It’s a lot of fun to experiment. It may not be something that I end up wanting to integrate into my usual work flow, but still, there might be a particular time when it’s an additional tool I can use.
I love seeing what other photographers and artists are doing because I love art, period. Art is inspiring. I was always surprised when I would meet other writers who didn’t read. However, there does need to be a balance between inspiration and self-exploration – room for the individual to find his/her own light, process, and unique perspective.
16. Are there any types or styles of photography you’d still like to learn? If so, what are they?
In addition to macro photography, I love looking at street and urban photography as well. Being a little shy, I tend to get self-conscious and a bit of a sensory overload in a city setting so it’s harder for me to find my concentration, but I certainly would like to experiment with that type of photography more.
I also want to develop more photographic art, merging the representational capture with an interpretive emotional, psychological or spiritual dimension via multi-exposures or composite work. I love these pieces, but they can take hours, and I never know whether it will work or not. And I definitely have to be in an inspired frame of mind.
One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is about what I’m trying to accomplish. The benefits for me are that I enjoy the creative process and the sense of adventure, and I often learn more about a subject through a combination of observation in the field as well as through research for the photo description. But there is also the component of wanting to share my work with others. I hope that some will appreciate it on an artistic or emotional level, and through that appreciation increase and strengthen their own love for the beauty of the natural world and its inhabitants. So many people don’t get the chance to be in the natural world; why should they care about it? But I want them to desire to know it and see it for themselves. I like to think that together our desire might save it.