Like many professional photographers these days, Tom Till came into photography as an extension for his appreciation for nature and the natural world around us. He transitioned slowly while working regularly as a teacher until photography became his full time job over 25 years ago. Till shares with us his insights into what it takes to make it as a nature and landscape photographer (hint: lots of hard work) as well as how he goes about picking subjects.
Tom also has a newly released book for those looking to photograph on an international scale titled Photographing the World: A Guide to Photographing 201 of the Most Beautiful Places on Earth. More of his work can be found at www.tomtill.com.
Q How did you get started in photography?
In college, I saw books by Eliot Porter and I had kind of an environmental awareness awakening, and so I was also looking at the books from the Sierra Club exhibit format series and that sort of thing and I really admired those photographs.
I went to a college with a very good photography department, but I didn’t take one course. Maybe a good thing I didn’t because I think college courses might be good for a lot of things, but they might also talk you out of trying to pursue landscape and nature photography. Because I don’t think a lot of them consider it be cutting edge enough, or something. I think they would rather have you do something with a social impact, but I could be wrong.
At the same time, I also had a strong attraction to the Southwest USA. I had lived in the Midwest since I was a kid and I was really fond of Arizona Highways Magazine and Life and Look and National Geographic. I grew up looking at all those photographs.
Eventually, I moved out here to Moab, Utah with the sole desire of exploring the area as much as I could for the rest of my life, I’ve done pretty well at least on that score. I thought maybe photographing some of the beautiful things I was seeing would be fun. With those three people I mentioned as heroes I bought a 4×5 camera with no idea of how to use it. I spent several years practicing with no help at all.
There were no workshops or anything like that in those days. We’re talking the mid 70s now. Eventually I was a high school teacher and I had all summer to shoot and all the vacations and I started to sell my work. I was very diligent about trying to get my work published and actually have some money coming in so by the time I quit teaching, which was 1985, I had a very big stock portfolio and I had a lot of clients. So I didn’t have a starving artists period during that time.
Q You made more of a general transition shooting what you loved to and then finding a market for it?
Yeah, I think that is very fair to say. That is still what I do for the most part. Everything is self assigned, I get occasional assignments and I used to get more back before the recession. But generally speaking, 95% of what I do is self assigned. And it’s a subject that I’m interested in and subjects that I love to photograph.
I think that’s a key thing in photography, to love your subject. I think it shows through in your work and it’s a great motivator. People have a romantic idea of outdoor photographers and their lifestyle and it’s not really all that glamorous most of the time. It’s hard work. I think you need that love, and I have kind of an obsessive-compulsive personality and I think that is helpful.
Q After all this time shooting, from where do you draw your inspiration? Especially shooting as much as you have in the Southwest.
I don’t just shoot the Southwest. After shooting everywhere in the US, I started shooting overseas a lot, maybe 25 years ago. Now in my dotage, I’ve come down to the fact that I want to shoot mainly in the Southwest. The two things that I seem to know right now is that I have to shoot, [and] I want to shoot in the Southwest.
There are so many undiscovered things here. There is so much amazing light. I find things near my house in Moab all the time that are within four or five miles from where I live that are new to me, new subjects. Factor that out to the whole Colorado Plateau and then the whole Southwest it’s just an infinite amount of things.
There are a lot of photographers in the Southwest now at the prime locations so I stay away from those because there are so many people. But I can go places, I just came back from a trip to the Balkans and I never saw another photographer at all these spectacular places that nobody really knows about. Great landscapes. Great views. That’s fun too.
Q Moving to gear now, what’s been invaluable to your style in the past and then touch on what you like about moving to 35mm going forward?
I shot 4×5 for almost 40 years. I loved that format and I’m kind of a detail lover and I love the detail that I got. I knew that when my images were published on a double page spread that everything was going to be tack-sharp. It was always great to look at those 4×5 transparencies on the light table because they had so much luminosity and so much life to them.
Actually, that’s what got me started with 4×5 in the first place; I met a friend here in Moab when I was visiting, well, we became friends actually, he showed me some 4x5s on a light table for the first time and that was finally the Ah-Ha moment that I knew that I had to do that when I saw those images on the light table.
I was a Canon guy when I went to 35mm, I guess it’s only been, what, four years ago now? I got the 1Ds and then I had a Mark II which I loved, thought was a wonderful camera. But the idea of having a fairly lightweight 36 megapixel camera was just too much for me to pass up so I sold all the Canon stuff and bought the Nikon [D800E]. I’ve been shooting a lot with it and I think it’s just a magnificent piece of technology.
I don’t see any chromatic aberration in the Nikon lenses that I did see in the Canon sometimes. I was shooting interiors in the last month or so and one of the things I was shooting in the Balkans were these 1000 year old paintings inside some old Orthodox churches that are just huge. I would go in there and show the priest the detail that I was getting with the Nikon and they would kind of flipout because they could see things in the painting that they had never noticed before with their eyes.
I’m really high on this Nikon camera.
Q What made you go with the D800E over the regular D800?
I just thought if I [might] get a little bit more sharpness and detail, if I’ve gone this far I might as well go the rest of the way and get the maximum. And I haven’t seen any sign of the moire patterns in anything that I’ve shot. No hint at all that it is happening.
The sharpness is really wild. When we scan the 4x5s and then I look at them at the same magnification, even scanned at 1800DPI, I start to get grain on the 4×5 before I get anything in the Nikon pictures. I’m really amazed at how they pulled this off.
Q To your point of self assignment, how do you pick a place to shoot, because I imagine the trips have to pay for themselves?
Around here, I thought anything was game. It was important to shoot the National Parks starting out. I had this rule that I was never going to shoot Delicate Arch when I first started out. I don’t know why, just to be contrary? I quickly violated that.
It’s nice to have a retail store and still be in the stock photography business because you get two different kinds of feedback about what people like. I find it hard to predict what people are going to like so I can’t say that that gives me a lot of information about what I shoot but it gives me a little.
It is important to shoot places people don’t know about but it is also important, if you’re trying to make a living at it, to shoot the famous places too. It’s just a fact of life. Even though they have been shot a million times before by countless other people, it’s still probably an important key to making a living.
Q The flip side of going out and shooting National Parks and the beautiful places of the world, how much time do you spend in front of a computer just trying to get one, solid final image?
I’m pretty fast now. I’ve just edited several hundreds for this Balkan thing. What I did was, I just use Lightroom and I didn’t do anything with color, I was working mainly with contrast and trying to use the new black and white controls to get a little more color with the black control. And not using Saturation at all.
Also trying to control the histogram without going to a HDR shot whenever possible. With Lightroom, many, many shots with that graduated neutral density filter and with the other controls… 19 out of 20 times I could get them to where I wanted them to be in Lightroom. It only took five or ten minutes per photo. I wasn’t spending copious amounts of time on them.
I also think that the Nikon D800E is helping me there because it seems that camera has a wider dynamic range than the Canons that I’ve been using. I had less of a problem with dynamic range than I did with a Canon. Maybe that made things easier also.
The detail is also great. Other things become less important. It’s less important to me to have a RAW file that looks like a transparency as much. I’d be less apt to mess with the color and leave it as it is and just let the detail carry the photo along with hopefully a good composition and good subject.
I’m not spending hours and hours and hours doing that. Any more.
Q Do you have any other advice for people starting in commercial photography?
I see a number of things in workshops that are problems many people seem to have. I have a list of them here… just a couple of them, I don’t want to overwhelm people.
I think tripods, if people ask me the one thing they can do to really improve their landscape and nature photography, a tripod is key. Occasionally you’ll want to forget the tripod and lay down on the ground and get a shot, that’s great. But I think we’re working when light is low, for the best light. And we’re often working with the aperture settings stopped way down and how can you do that without a tripod?
When using a tripod, I see so many people touching and fondling it when their shooting. It’s human nature, I guess. I spend the first couple of days of workshops kind of slapping people’s hands away from their cameras, because they want to keep their hands on it while shooting. So don’t do that.
If you’re going to use a foreground try to make sure it’s a great one. I see people try to introduce foregrounds into their images but they’ll pick a foreground that is not particularly appealing. It’s just kind of a random foreground. I spend a lot of time, if I’m going to use a foreground, looking for a really good one. Where there is really good light on something or the subject creates interest throughout the photograph.
I see a lot of images with lots of uninteresting sky. I learned this from Muench, I try to ruthlessly remove an uninteresting sky or get rid of it altogether. The other side of that is clouds are really an important part of my work. Also the kind of weather where there’s apt to be clouds I think is really the great time to be shooting. Muench used to say, “bad weather means good pictures.” And I think that’s true for me also.