I’ve recently had the distinct pleasure of interviewing a very talented, experienced and thought provoking nature photographer from the great state of Illinois. His name is Paul Antonetti and his interests range from capturing the essence of his environment to deciphering what he’s gathered into a piece that we can all learn from and admire. As you’ll discover from reading the interview below, Paul’s perspective on photography, and somewhat on life in general, is one that’s driven by a person who regards his craft carefully. It’s my pleasure to share Paul’s thoughts and ideas with our readers. And to Paul, I extend a heartfelt “thank you” for taking the time to respond to each question in a manner that, not only gives us an answer, but gives us an opportunity to glimpse into the mind of a person who truly enjoys what they do.
If you’d like to learn more about Paul, please visit his website. You can also follow him on Twitter.
1. Can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself?
My name is Paul Antonetti. I’m a freelance nature photographer and landscape designer living in northern Illinois. That’s the basic, “facebook profile” answer. Neither very interesting, nor very revealing. Perhaps a better way to introduce myself would be through the lyrics of a song…
Sees the sun going down
And the eyes in his head
See the world spinning round”
Those particular Lennon and McCartney lyrics, from the song “The Fool on the Hill,” have always resonated with me. I’ve always been something of an introvert…someone more comfortable alone in the middle of nature, observing and contemplating, rather than someone surrounded by strangers at a crowded pub. Not that I don’t enjoy the company of other people, of course. It’s just that I’m more comfortable than most with extended periods of solitude. Rather than being a lonely existence, I’ve found time spent alone with my own thoughts to be richly rewarding. The periods of solitude have heightened my powers of observation, granting me the ability to notice the small details most others overlook. It’s in those details that you often find the beautiful and the miraculous. Best of all, you can find it all around you, often right outside your own back door.
2. Where do you call home?
I currently live in the Near Western Chicago suburbs. A great place to live if you like good food and weather extremes. I happen to be a fan of both, so it works out well for me. It does make it a little more difficult to be a nature photographer – the area lacks the awe-inspiring scenery found in many other parts of the country, and I often have to drive long distances to escape the buildings and concrete. However, if you look hard enough, there’s plenty of natural beauty to be found within a couple of hours of downtown Chicago.
3. When did you first become interested in photography and how long have you been involved with it?
My history with photography comes in two parts. I first picked up a camera back in the 1980s, for a college photography course. Though I was immediately drawn to photography as an art form, the cost of film, and my own slow progress frustrated me. A couple of years in, I’m embarrassed to say that I threw in the towel. It wasn’t until the first affordable DSLRs began showing up, around 2006, that I decided to have another go at it. At first I dabbled, but it wasn’t long before I was hooked. Thanks to the instant feedback loop of digital, I found my skills progressing at a much faster pace, and I was no longer burdened by the cost of film and processing.
4. Are you self taught or formally taught?
With the exception of that aforementioned college photography course, I am self-taught. It’s a lot easier to be self-taught today than it was 30 years ago, with the abundance of resources available online. I’m also inclined to take a “figure it out myself” approach to whatever task I undertake. It’s simply how I personally learn best. Of course, everyone is different, and I have little doubt formal education and photography workshops can be extremely beneficial to many people.
5. What is your favorite type of photography, meaning, what do you love taking pictures of the most?
I am, first and foremost, a nature photographer, though I do enjoy other types of photography as well. If I weren’t a nature photographer, I’d probably lean towards travel or documentary work. There is, in fact, some element of documentary photography in the images I make, though recently I find myself increasingly drawn towards a more impressionistic style. This may not be fully reflected in my work at this point, but I definitely feel a pull in that direction. In terms of specific subjects within the field of nature photography, I can’t say that I have a particular favorite. I do enjoy photographing wildlife, though the opportunities to photograph animals are not abundant, given my current location.
I’m mostly drawn to what I call small scale landscapes. Not the sweeping vistas shot at sunset that you see so often on photography sites, but rather small slices of those bigger scenes. I like to zero in on the details… elements that stand out because of shape, texture, pattern, color, etc. I’ve found a great deal of inspiration in the work of Eliot Porter, a photographer known for his colorful images of small scale landscapes. Sometimes I like to get in really close, at a macro level, to reveal those tiny hidden worlds that we often pass by without a second glance. I still consider those “landscapes” in a sense. My attraction to these small scale landscapes is out of both necessity and preference. Because of my proximity to a major city, there simply isn’t much of an opportunity to photograph those grand wide-angle landscapes. I’ve had to learn to focus in on the details, and in a way I’m thankful, because this particular style has become my preference, both in my own work and in the work of others. I find that these smaller, more intimate compositions give me a greater sense of place than do the all-encompassing landscape images, in which as a viewer, I often feel lost.
The one thing I want to emphasize is that I’m not someone who goes out looking to photograph specific subjects. Rather, I’m looking for a combination of interesting subject and flattering light. From my perspective, photography is all about the light. You can create a good image with an average subject and beautiful light, but the greatest subject anyone’s ever seen, photographed in lousy light is still going to make for a lousy image. If I could only give one piece of advice regarding photography, it would be to think light first, and subject second.
6. What is your favorite part of being a photographer?
Obviously being out in nature is pretty great. Even on days when the light is not cooperating, or your struggling with the elements, it’s still a joy to be out in the middle of nowhere, to feel, and to renew your connection to the natural world. It’s like therapy, only it costs a lot less, and you’re not stuck in an office laying on a couch. The best part, though, is being able to share not just what I see, but how I see it, and how it makes me feel. Hopefully my best images accomplish all those tasks. Photography at it’s best is communication. A songwriter shares his or her thoughts and feelings through words and music. I share mine through images.
7. When shooting subjects, what do you find most challenging?
The great challenge of nature photography is controlling contrast. The studio photographer has complete control over the light in his composition. He can add light, subtract it, make it softer or harder, direct it to a certain spot, pretty much bend it anyway he so pleases. Nature photographers are at the mercy of… well, nature. There are some ways in which we can control light using flash or reflectors/diffusors, but most of the time we must simply wait for the right light. Nature photography is not an endeavor for the impatient. What’s the “right” light? That often depends on the subject – light that is flattering to one subject might be completely inappropriate for another. Learning to read the light, and knowing what type of light works best with what type of subject is one of the keys to good nature photography.
8. What do you do to keep your photography fresh and how do you stay motivated to keep on learning?
Motivation has never been difficult for me, with regards to the things I love. And I certainly love photography. I love creating images, and I love communicating through those images. If I didn’t, I’d be doing something else. I want to be good at what I do, out of respect for the art form, out of respect for the subject, and out of respect for myself and whatever talent I was blessed with. If you’re going to do something, then you should do it as best you can, or don’t do it at all. I’ve never been someone who can do something just for the fun of it. For me, the fun comes not from doing, but from doing it well. Now inspiration is another matter all together. We all get in creative ruts from time to time. There are lots of ways to remain fresh and innovative. My favorite is to spend a day shooting with a single lens, usually a prime lens. This often forces me to be creative, to find new compositions, new ways of seeing. I consider learning to be a lifelong process. One of the things I love about photography is that there are so many different ways to accomplish the same goal. I’m always searching out new techniques, both in terms of shooting and post-processing, in an effort to find what works best for me. What I’ve found is that what works best changes from day to day, depending upon either my subject, or my own state of mind at the time. So I continue to absorb new information, to keep pace with the increasingly varied subjects I shoot, and my ever-changing moods and tastes.
9. What advice can you offer to someone who wants to learn about photography?
Start by learning about the history of photography. What’s that old saying?… “You can’t know where you’re going until you know where you’ve been.” As you learn about the progression of photography through the years, you’ll be exposed to different genres and styles, different ways of seeing and thinking. A small digression – there’s lots of talk nowadays about finding a personal style. I think it’s good to remember that style is not, or at least should not be static. If you’re continually growing as an artist, then your style should be continually evolving. Truthfully, I dislike the term “style” – worry less about developing a personal style, and more about creating images that convey and elicit genuine emotion, images that reveal something essential about both your subject, and your own emotional response to that subject.
I realize it sounds so 20th century, but books can be a great source of knowledge and inspiration. A few of my favorites include “Photography and the Art of Seeing,” and “Photo Impressionism,” both by Freeman Patterson. “The New Art of Photographing Nature: An Updated Guide to Composing Stunning Images of Animals, Nature, and Landscapes,” by Art Wolfe. “Eliot Porter: In the Realm of Nature,” and “Galen Rowell: A Retrospective” are also favorites. Lastly, “Frans Lanting: Okavango,” a masterwork documenting the great African wilderness.
Don’t just stick with photographers, however. Your photography can also be enhanced by studying the works of great painters. Books by Monet and van Gogh sit side by side with my photography books. Make note of how they compose their paintings, how they use color and interpret light.
Photographic workshops can also be beneficial, giving you the opportunity for one on one engagement with real experts, often in fantastically inspiring locations.
Finally, get out there and shoot. Trial and error is often the best teacher. Learn the rules, and then go break them. That’s often how great art is made.
10. Do you visit any photography related websites or blogs on a regular basis, and if so, which ones?
There’s a blurb from the “about” section on my blog that I think says it best, when it comes to photography websites… “The opinions expressed on this blog are just that – opinions. Don’t assume that I’m always correct, because I most certainly do not. I’m always learning, always growing, as a photographer, and hopefully, as a person. There are plenty of other fine photographic resources available across the internet. Make use of them, I certainly do. The more opinions you consider, the closer you’ll come to the essential truth.” The trick is to make sure you’re absorbing good information. There’s so much information out there these days, but so much of it is, frankly, not very useful. There are very few unbiased sites written by knowledgeable people with vast amounts of experience. There are unfortunately an almost infinite number of sites written by self-proclaimed experts handing out information that is often factually wrong, or at best questionable. The goal of many of these sites seems to be to steer you towards their affiliate links, rather than to provide you with useful information. Make sure your BS sniffer is set to maximum as you surf the various photography sites out there.
Some of my favorite sites include the following:
This is a portal that leads to several sites authored by Thom Hogan. Thom’s main focus is Nikon, but he offers a wealth of information that’s useful regardless of what camera brand you use. Unbiased. No-nonsense. Plenty of dry humor and a dash of snark.
This site is more about the art of photography than it is about gear or technique, and it’s often an informative and enlightening read. I also appreciate the fact that it’s author, Mike Johnston, frequently and entertainingly strays off-topic.
Michael Reichmann and friends deliver opinions backed by decades of experience and sprinkled with more than a little good humor.
The fact that they’re now related to a big retailer (amazon.com) makes me a little uneasy, but their camera tests are generally as thorough and sound as it gets.
I appreciate the fact that their reviews also often include a greater emphasis on real world use, rather than just lab numbers.
What’s this, you say? A lens rental company? Roger Cicala at lensrentals.com is a bright and curious guy who often uses the lensrentals blog to document his many adventures in testing – and occasionally disassembling – the gear he rents. Informative, occasionally eye-opening, and frequently funny.
Sites for inspiration – a roll-call of some of my favorite photographers:
11. What type of camera(s) do you shoot with? What’s your favorite lens?
I switched to the Micro Four Thirds format about three years ago, and I consider it to be one of the best decisions I’ve made. I made the switch for two reasons. The first was that I had a terrible customer service experience with the brand I had been using – so bad that I no longer trusted them to stand behind their products, or to be able to deliver products that consistently worked properly right out of the box. Quality control and customer service are two things that should be taken into serious consideration when choosing camera gear. The second reason was lenses, or lack thereof. The lenses I needed simply weren’t available for the cameras I was using at the time. I find the m4/3 system to be an almost perfect balance of size and capability. I can now carry more gear into the field, while carrying considerably less weight overall. The best part is, I don’t feel as if I’ve given up anything significant in the way of performance. I currently use both an Olympus OM-D E-M5 and an E-M10.
I’ve always been partial to telephoto lenses. It’s simply the way I see the world. Most of my images are made at focal lengths between 90 and 200mm. Quite a few are made at focal lengths over 200mm. I think many people would be surprised to learn that this is true for most nature photographers. When people think “landscapes,” they often think wide angle lenses. Truth is, many, if not most landscapes are shot with telephoto lenses. My current personal favorite is the Olympus 75mm f/1.8. In 35mm terms, it’s basically equivalent to a 150mm angle of view. It has great edge acuity, micro contrast and edge to edge sharpness, even wide open. A very well behaved lens in every regard, capable of fantastic images. The nice thing about the m4/3 system is that there’s an abundance of excellent lenses, at every price point, and the number continues to grow.
12. What is your favorite photography accessory?
I’m going to stretch the definition of “photography accessory” and say my Lowepro backpacks. They are well made, rugged, and most importantly, comfortable. Of all the backpacks I’ve tried, Lowepro is my favorite brand. I currently own three of their bags, and I couldn’t be happier with the quality.
I’d also rank the small 12″ reflector and diffuser I carry with me as favorite accessories. They’re invaluable in controlling contrast and adding a bit of fill light during macro shooting.
13. How important is Photoshop or other image editing software in your final images?
Photoshop often gets a bad rap from those who don’t really know much about it. Their criticism often arises after viewing images created by those who tend to use Photoshop with, shall we say, a heavy hand.
If you’re trying to eek out every last bit of image quality from your camera – and if you’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars for it, why wouldn’t you be? – then you’re recording images in the RAW file format. Those RAW files need to be, for lack of a better term, developed. A JPEG file has qualities such as contrast, saturation, white balance and sharpness “baked” into it. The RAW file does not. It’s up to the photographer to define these parameters using Photoshop, or some other image processing software. I rarely use Photoshop, as I don’t need the sophisticated editing abilities it offers. I mostly use Adobe Lightroom 6 for my basic RAW conversions, and then often use one of the plugins from Nik, On1 or Topaz Labs to further tweak an image. Just how much tweaking I do is dependent upon the individual image, and the effect I’m trying to create. Most of the time I’m making pretty basic adjustments, but on occasion I’ll push things a little further if I’m going for a specific effect, or if I was shooting in difficult light and my image needs extra work to bring the exposure in line. Whatever the case, I always try to use a light touch. My rule is, if I can see the processing when I’ve finished, then I’ve gone too far.
I’ve recently been experimenting with a bit of software from Topaz Labs called Impression. It can be used to turn photographs into images that resemble paintings. It’s more than just a simple filter. It’s a sophisticated program that gives the user a tremendous amount of control over the final look of the image. I’m quite encouraged by the results so far. So much so that I’ve opened a new gallery on my portfolio site for images created using this software. Some people might find such software gimmicky, but I do not. At the end of the day, like Photoshop – and like the analog darkroom was in the days of film – it’s just another creative tool to help the photographer express his creative vision.
14. Do you plan on purchasing any new equipment and if so, what are you on the lookout for?
I will most likely be upgrading my telephoto zoom in the near future, and adding a super telephoto prime, as soon as it’s available. I’ve been using the Panasonic 100-300mm lens, and while it’s quite good, especially for the price, there are times when I wish for a bit more quality. I’m pretty happy with my current camera bodies, even though at least one is getting a bit long in the tooth – three years is ancient in digital camera terms – but if, in the near future, there’s a big leap forward in image quality, I’d certainly consider upgrading.
One of the benefits of using the same cameras for an extended period is that you really get to know their strengths and weaknesses, and the longer you use them, the more quality you’re able to squeeze out of them. The images that I’m making today with the E-M5 are better than the images I was making with it three years ago. The camera hasn’t gotten better, but I’ve gotten better at using the camera. Also, when time is of the essence, I don’t fumble around looking for the right button. By this time I know where all the controls are, and I don’t have to think, just react. That’s one reason why you should never take a new camera on an important trip. You’re likely to miss shots just because of unfamiliarity with the controls.
15. Are there any areas of photography that you have yet to pick up on that you’d like to learn?
I’d have to say all of them. Honestly, I’m only half joking. I believe it was French street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson who said “Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” Truer words have rarely been spoken. Nine years after returning to photography, I feel as if I’m just now becoming a competent photographer. I recall famed nature photographer Art Wolfe speaking about how he essentially threw away the first ten years of his work, because as he progressed, he realized it wasn’t up to snuff. If it takes someone like Art Wolfe that long to master the technical and artistic challenges of photography, the rest of us are unlikely to get there any faster. Oddly enough, that’s really one of the things that I love about photography. You can spend a lifetime working at it, and never truly master it. You might come close to perfection on occasion, but it always remains tantalizingly out of reach. Some might find that frustrating, and give up. I’ve come to see it as a motivating force. There’s always something new to learn. Every day is a new adventure, filled with the promise of discovery.