Interview with the Photographer Bob Estrin

1. What first sparked your interest in photography?

Traveling with my parents around the country on vacations, I first discovered my interest in photography at a young age with my dad's B/W Polaroid camera. I enjoyed the instant feedback of seeing the image a few minutes after it was taken. It is interesting that about 35 years later, I get that same feeling with the use of digital.

2. When did you first begin working in photography? Or as a hobby?

I started to get more serious in photography, with my first 35mm camera, as a high school freshman in 1971. Photography had remained a hobby of mine for many years after that. I started marketing my work as art in exhibitions in 2002 and started selling my work about 2 years ago. It is currently a part-time business.

3. What was your first job involving photography?

When I graduated from college with a BA degree in professional photography, I got a job at a camera store until I could figure what I wanted to do as far as a long-term career path. While working at the camera store, I returned to school to learn to be a computer programmer.

4. Before you started photography as a profession, what did you do? How much was photography a part of your life?

My profession was as a Programmer/Analyst writing software on mainframe and minicomputers as well as personal computers. I also worked many years as a System Analyst which involves designing/writing up the computer programmer specs that the programmer uses to program the system.

While working I still considered photography as part of my life as a hobby.

5. What made you want to change?

I stopped working as a System Analyst due to illness many years ago. I only intended to take a year off, but I never went back. This extra free time allowed me to devote more time to increasing my photography skills. I decided to take it out of the hobby status a few years ago.

6. How did your old job affect your life and interest in photography? Or even your outlook on photography?

My computer training has benefited me greatly since photography is turning more into two distinct skill sets. While you still need to have a good sense of vision for the art of photography, the after-processing of images is playing a more important role.

This after processing requires using technology and complex skill sets. An example of this is using PhotoShop to adjust your images before printing as well as creating a website such as Having a computer background allowed for an easier transition to the digital end of photography. Also as a programmer/analyst you need to be very precise. This reflects in my attention to detail in areas from the time of exposure to the final print creation.

7. What did you do before that?

I grew up.

8. What inspires you, in general?

I get inspired by looking at a lot of great art at museums, gallery exhibits, or general art shows. I feel that in a small way, it opens up my eyes to see in different ways and may slightly influence or inspire me to try something new. Another thing that inspires me is being with other creative people such as artist.

I also get inspired by being out in nature and enjoying the many beautiful areas of the Western States.

9. What inspires you in Arizona and the Mid-West?

When I went to college in Southern Illinois, my interest was more in documentary photography such as photographing in the small towns such as the buildings and people. I also had an interest even then in photographing things that were disappearing which reflects on my work to this day.

My work since moving to the Southwest has been more nature and landscape work as well as photographing old cars and things from the past. The beauty around Arizona, Southern Utah, and New Mexico has inspired me to change the way I think and photograph. When you photograph on and off for over thirty-five years, you tend to want to grow and change over time. It is interesting that I still see similarities in my work from the 70's to my new work.

10. When you get an idea in your head for a photo, how do go about getting that shot?

This really depends on what I am photographing. I never just walk up to a subject and take a photo. I generally first walk around the subject to see what the main part I want to emphasize and at what angle I wish to capture it from. I do not think of it as documenting what is there but how I want to represent the subject in the final image.

There are many variables that are in play such as how light is hitting the subject, depth of field, exposure, composition and each one needs to be reviewed. Since I have been photographing for such a long time, I make most of these numerous decisions automatically without realizing the different steps that my mind is making during the image creation process.

11. Which do you do more often: get an idea in your head and then set out to get it or go out trying to get ideas and then come across something you like?

It is really a combination of both of those concepts. I do go into certain photography situations with some preconceived ideas of what I would like to accomplish. I then use what is available at the time to influence how I can make it happen. One advantage of "Art" is that nothing is absolute and the creative process is very fluid, so go with the flow.

12. How do you know when you get "the shot"?

It is interesting to me that sometimes you know right away at the time you trip the shutter that you have something special. Many times I shoot a specific subject numerous ways but know in advance which one I will want to use in the end.

Sometimes for the first group of photographs I take are just my way of seeing the subject and how I want to represent it. When I make my decision, I take my final few images and those are probably the ones that will be the best. The advantage of seeing the images on the LCD screen of a digital camera helps out in this determination.

Most of the time, you do not know at the time when you got the shot. When you view the images at a later time, you can see them more as someone else might view them. This is a good time to determine if that shot is one you will want to pursue further. This is a very important step in the workflow since you tend to take many more images with digital cameras than previously done and this requires the photographer to be more selective.

Sometimes photographers see their images with an emotional attachment based on personal experiences relating to the shooting situation. This could be something like needing to wake up at 5 am to go to a location and remembering things like sounds, weather, smell, changing light conditions, and difficulty of the shot. When a viewer sees your work, none of that matters and they are seeing just the image and their own emotional response is based on experiences they may be reminded of when viewing the image. Sometimes the photographer has to take this into consideration on how others may view an image in determining if they selected the right shot.

13. Describe to me the process of setting up the shot and executing it and processing it?

Since my photographic digital workflow is rather extensive, it is difficult to answer this in less than a small report. Each person's workflow from the taking of the picture to the printing process is different. It is important to set up a system that works for you and is also efficient. You will find that you may adjust your workflow as time goes on to reflect the current way you process your photography.

Part of my photographing workflow is to go to events or locations that I have a personal interest in so that this interest may reflect in my shooting style and final images. I also recommend using a tripod to slow down the process and concentrate on getting a few great images instead of blanketing the area with hundreds of shots hoping to find a great image on a later review. I also review some of my images on the LCD screen so I can see how I can make the image composition better and adjust as needed while still at the scene.

Part of my digital workflow that I suggest others consider is photographing in Raw mode instead of in JPG. I also use the Adobe RGB color space instead of RGB. I process my images in Photoshop and use the image cataloging software called IView Media Pro.

14. What type of camera do you use? What type of equipment? How do you get such vibrant colors in your photos?

My main camera right now is the Canon 5D digital camera. This camera uses a full-frame sensor the size of a 35mm negative or slide and can produce high-resolution images even at large sizes. My main lenses are the Canon 17-40 and the Canon 100-400 and use a Feisol carbon fiber tripod with a ball head. I try to bring with me only what I will need for that specific shoot to keep things simpler and lighter. Some common accessories I keep in my camera bag are a flash, electronic cable release, camera batteries, compact flashcards, a few filters, and a lens cleaning cloth. I add more specialty equipment as needed depending on the location.

My colors are a result of my after processing. While I originally did not do it on purpose, using the Curves layers in Photoshop to increase contrast is part of the reason for my vibrant colors. It is a result of my whole workflow and some images have more of the saturated feeling than others. I have been trying to tone it down lately, but my customers prefer my images this way. My use of color has become part of my personal style and adds to the uniqueness of my images.

15. With landscape photography, do you scope out the area ahead of time and then get ideas in your head? Or just go out and get the shot?

There is a saying that you make your own luck. Advance research in an area is important such as locations, logistics on how to get to some more remote areas and timing such as best month or time of day to shoot. This can be done by visiting the location previously, reading books, doing research on the internet, or going with friends that are more familiar with the area.

Once you reach a certain level, many times you are not going to be happy with the results when photographing an area just because you happened to be there at that time of the day. Many times I may revisit an area I have photographed numerous times. Each time I gain additional knowledge on how I can do better the next time. It would be nice if great images just happen and sometimes they do, but your chances increase with some advanced preparation.

16. Are there guidelines you should follow while shooting landscape photography?

Many people photograph landscapes during the "magic hours" which are before sunrise, sunrise to about early morning. Another good time to photograph is late in the afternoon including sunset and beyond when the light is warmer. Now that I have given you a general rule, go out and break it since you can also find nice light and interesting subjects to photograph between 10 am and 3 pm.

As a general guideline, it is also nice to be respectful to the land you are photographing on. I have always liked the phrase "Take only pictures, leave only footprints".

17. When you are shooting at a ghost town, how do you know that something that is a regular, everyday object can make to be an incredible photo (a doorway or window, some pants or shoes)? Or do you know at all when you take the shot?

When I am photographing and sometimes when I am just traveling like anyone else, I see the surrounding areas in detail and try to absorb as much as I can that is going around me. While most people might walk down a street to take on the view with a more generic or global viewpoint, I like to concentrate on the little details that make up the scene. This allows me to see things in a different way which I try to reflect on in my photography.

As far as ghost towns go, they are a treasure of opportunity for finding little items to work with. I enjoy arranging interesting objects I find at the scene within my composition such as the door, pants, or shoes. The idea is to be creative. You can have numerous photographers in the same space and they will come up with totally different concepts.

Some photographers go into a room and only look for subjects as they are, others look for the possibilities. I have had different photographers come up to me and say I can't rearrange the subject matter for a photo. These people either have no concept of what art is or for some reason are confusing me with a photojournalist.

18. What do you look for when you are shooting either at a ghost town or a landscape?

When photographing a ghost town or most general subjects, I look for a unique point of view. If I think another photographer might photograph that subject in that manner, I will just pass it up unless I can think of another approach. For ghost towns, I like to photograph the area in general for documentation purposes and then go for details concentrating on a specific object or objects. For landscapes, light or really quality of light is one of the most important parameters. This is so important, I will say it again "It's all about the light". I tend to shoot more wide-angle for my landscape work with some object in the foreground and have the vast landscape fill in the background.

19. In your wildlife photography, how long do you usually have to wait? Do you go out expecting or trying to get a wildlife shot?

I enjoy seeing wildlife in my travels with my favorite places being Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, and Glacier National Park in Montana. You can increase your chances of seeing wildlife by knowing the area and the best times and locations for different animals. Also, luck places a very important role in being in the right place at the right time. I usually go out to areas in which wildlife are more likely to show up and wait. With wildlife, photography experience plays a very important role and also specialized equipment can also help get the images we all hope for.

20. Are there guidelines you should follow while shooting wildlife?

Yes, know which animals are dangerous and act appropriately. I would also keep a safe distance from the wildlife even though it is common for many photographers to go way too close to get a shot. In my experience, female moose are the most dangerous and I have had some bad encounters. If you are in bear country, you should know what to do to reduce your chance of getting hurt. The ways to act are much different for a Black bear encounter and a Brown bear (Grizzly). Interestingly, the most animal injuries and deaths in Yellowstone National Park come from the buffalo and I still see people walk right up to them close enough to pet them. I think that the general rule is to use common sense and error on the side of caution. These animals are not 2000 pound pets.

It helps to know something about the animals you want to photograph. By knowing their behaviors, you have a better chance of finding them. When I photograph wildlife, I tend to think that I am visiting their home respecting their boundaries and let them go about in their normal behavior. This produces a more natural image of the animals.

In wildlife photography, specialty equipment plays an important role. As an example when I see photographers photograph birds, the special equipment they may use is higher-end cameras that can take 5+ frames per second, very large telephoto lenses with wide apertures to photograph at higher shutter speeds and in lower light conditions as well as using lightweight carbon fiber tripods with specialty tripod heads such as the Wimberley tripod head. Many photographers also use a device over their flashes to extend the range of the flash. While this specialty equipment can get into many thousands of dollars, you can start more simply with a telephoto lens and build up your collection of equipment depending on your needs.

In the case of wildlife photography and with the per-shot cost advantage of digital cameras, I feel taking a lot of photographs of wildlife subjects is warranted versus my approach of slowing things down in landscape photography mentioned previously. Also, I tend to use the faster shutter speed I can even if I need to increase the ISO from my usual 100 to 400 or 800. It all depends on how fast the wildlife is moving and your distance to the subject.

21. Why is photography important to you?

I feel everyone needs a few passions whether it's playing music to flying model airplanes. In my case, my main passion currently is photography. I use photography as a way to express my creativity as well as an excuse to be more adventurous and seek out experiences I would never have considered before.

While I try to have a more balanced life, I have been incorporating photography or art more into my life in the last few years. Part of the situation is that I have photography as part of my business and also it is part of my social life. It takes a lot of time to develop a new business but when it is also one of your passions, it sometimes does not seem like work. We should all have it this bad.

22. When you do come across something you like, how do get that unique shot?

I do not believe that there is a magic formula and if there was, I would probably break it. If you want a unique shot, think out of the box. In my case when I sell fine art photography, the competition is very strong. If you want to compete with others, you need to have your own vision. I photograph for myself and hope my customers can relate to my work and enjoy it as much as I do. I feel fortunate that my feedback says that they do relate to my images.

23. What are you thinking when you are looking through your "photographer's eye"? When you are looking for that unique shot?

I am thinking about how to best represent the subject matter using my personal perspective and vision. Composition is very important to me and I often get the comment that I have a good eye. I generally set up with a tripod which slows down the process. This allows me the time to take every little object in the viewfinder into consideration on how it will affect the rest of the image.

You can move the composition around to eliminate areas that take away from the main subject matter. Sometimes keeping it simple is the best approach. I also like to review all four corners and also around the edge of the viewfinder before I take the picture. I tend not to crop and like to get the composition and exposure the best I can upfront.

24. How do you communicate what you are feeling and seeing within your photo?

This is difficult since different people relate to the same image in different ways based on their own experiences. I do not feel bad if someone sees things from a different perspective than mine. Part of art, from my perspective, is to invoke an emotional response in the viewer and not as much trying to tell them what the image means to me. This really goes against what the galleries or curators think where the artist statement is so important to them. My feeling is that the artwork should first stand on its own and any support writings or verbal explanations should just be supportive of the art.

When I have had people, usually more literal than me, describing my work as "Art", I sometimes get an incite on how people see my work in a more descriptive form. This is much more interesting than the general "I like this image or you do beautiful work". Many times I find that they see something that makes perfect sense but I did not initially see it that way at the time of creation, at least not on a conscious level.

25. In the seminars that you teach, do you think it affects or helps you as a photographer?

I do not do enough seminars to affect me as a photographer but I enjoy the teaching aspect. I enjoy passing on knowledge to others as others have passed on knowledge to me. I feel it is more of a goal of an instructor to instruct and influence the photographers in the audience and less about how it helps the instructor in becoming a better photographer. As I do more seminars, I am sure I will pick up a few good tips from time to time.

26. What ideas do you teach?

To always grow as a photographer trying different things and ways of seeing during your photographic journey.

27. Do you have advice for beginner photographers?

With the advent of the digital camera, many new photographers take way too many photographs and perhaps hope that later they will find some that they like. I have the attitude that I would feel lucky to shoot the entire day and come away with 1 or 2 really great photographs. If you shoot a hundred or hundreds of photos in the day, you may be shooting too fast. I use a tripod to slow down my process on purpose and it seems to work for me. This is more true to landscape-type photography. Photographing wildlife and sports, for example, you may want to shoot for freely.

When I first learned photography, everything was done manually such as focusing, setting the shutter speed and exposure as well as which settings to use for a particular situation. While I feel there was an advantage of learning photography when cameras were not so automated, the advantages of the new features are self-evident. Even with the newer advanced film and digital cameras, I think all beginning photographers should also know how to use their camera in manual mode or how to override the automatic settings when needed.

The new cameras are heavily automated with computers inside of them. I recommend that beginner photographers read the camera owners manual page by page and try out each of the cameras features of their camera such as the menu system, custom functions and different meter exposure options to name a few. Even if they will not use all the available functions during normal shooting situations, they will have the knowledge to use them as needed.

28. How would you describe yourself as a photographer?

I try to see life as an adventure and I use photography as an excuse to travel and document a part of myself thru my images that I can share with others.

29. What do you aspire to be as a photographer?

Famous, Rich, Just Kidding.

30. If you could go on assignment anywhere in the world to shoot whatever you wanted; where and what would it be, and why?

My first interest in photography, from an image standpoint, came from all the National Geographic magazine images in my sister's room as well as Life magazine. I had been dreaming from a young child to travel the world and visit these exotic locations.

I always wanted to go to China and visit the real China outside of the tourist areas. China is changing fast and I thought it would nice to see and document some of it before it's gone.

31. If you were allowed to show only one photo from this last year, 2006, which one would it be?

I don't have a favorite; I love all my children equally.

That's a tuff one but I would pick the photo called "Adobe Blue".

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Copyright 2007 Bob Estrin