My last post was my first ‘interview’ post with photographer Jim Griggs. I’m really excited to be making my second post in the ‘interview’ series this time with photographer Brad Mangas. The focus of these posts is to showcase some of the great talent we have in Kansas and also to highlight work of other photographers that has inspired me in some way. I think I first ran across Brad’s work on the Nature Photographers Network and since then I’ve been following his work on his blog, Facebook, and Google+.
One of Brad’s photos that really immediately grabbed my attention is the photo above. When I first saw this photo it seemed to glow from within and I was really captivated by it. This photo really inspired me to find more ways to work with light in my own photography and led me to experiment with a new processing technique, the “Orton” effect. There is something about this photo that I find very calming too, like I might feel if I was out on a walk. For some more info on this photograph I wanted to start the interview with some specific questions regarding it.
Scott: What was it about this scene that caught your eye…What made you stop and make this particular photo? Where were you when you made this photo? How did you go about making this photo?
Brad: First off thank you Scott for allowing me to be part of your efforts to help expose some of the wonderful work that is produced by fellow Kansas photographers. Whether images of Kansas or other beautiful places in our world there truly are some very talented people right here in our home state. My thoughts are set firm that there really is “No Place Like Home.”
The main thing that caught my attention to this was the color, I seem to be drawn to color it excites me when looking at things. I do produce black and white images from some of my work when the scene seems to make me lean that way but typically if something is colorful I explore it. This is nice example you picked out that illustrates the need for constant practice if you what to get better with your photography. In 2010 I gave myself a project for my blog and photography in general, The “Daily Photograph”. I challenged myself to take a picture everyday for a year. I fell just a little short of 365 straight photos but I believe I did end up posting over 300 for the year. Not all were typical nature type of shots, some were just things I would find lying on the ground or anything the would catch my attention and many were taken during my morning walk with our beloved Lhasa Apso, Lexi. I am lucky to live across from a very nice part of Shunga Park here in Topeka and needless to say we spend many of our mornings walking there. My plan for this project was to mostly use my point and shoot camera and just have it handy when out and about. Th image above was taken with the Canon G11 during one of those walks in the park. I saw this colorful vine which I believe to be Virgina Creeper and not poison ivy because most of the stems had 5 leaves instead of 3. The making of this photo is really nothing special, I simply composed it in a way that was pleasing for me but I did do some work on it to give it this finished look, kind of a glowing look. One thing that is imperative if you are serious about photography is learning to use the tools available in processing namely Photoshop, that is where ones artistic vision can meet with their photographic endeavors.
Scott: You mentioned in the blog post that accompanied this photo that you used a Orton effect to this photo, what led you to use that particular technique with this photo? Did you have a final look in mind before you started? Did you make the photo with this processing in mind? What led you to try the Orton effect on your photos?
Brad: This image does have an Orton effect applied to it I really love the look it gives a photo but it doesn’t work with everything. I won’t go into the technical part of the Orton effect but there are many articles out in the photography circles that explains this very well. It is a fun way to give a unique look to a photograph. When I took the picture I don’t think I had any specific type of processing in mind that usually comes when I’m back at the computer and I begin to look more closely at an image. Maybe it has come with experience maybe it is just a mood I’m in but when looking at an image without any other distractions I get more of a feel for what can be done with it. It might be to bring out the sharp contrast in textures or to help lead ones eye to a specific subject or in this case to blend the colorful foliage into more of a painterly look. The Orton effect works great with colorful foliage if that is the look one is after. When I am processing an image I have no problem trying many different looks so I will work it up 3 or 4 different ways many times one just ends up jumping out at me and I have that Oh Yeah moment.
(Scott: I like Brad’s thoughts here on being open to trying different things with a photograph and looking for that “Oh Yeah” moment, sometimes I get a pre-conceived vision of something I want in my head and it is hard to let go of that, which sometimes causes me to miss other options.)
Scott: Now for some general questions…how did you get started in photography?
Brad: This is always an interesting question and many people say they have always had a camera and were always taking pictures of things whether it was their kids or events or flowers in their garden, I think that is a given for most folks these days including myself so I won’t go back that far. Specifically my deep interest in photography started in the first part of 2006 when I was trying sell some things on ebay! Yep, ebay of all things to be linked to getting started in photography. I had just gotten remarried and together we had lots of items that we wanted to get rid of and ebay was the perfect way to do that and hopefully get a few bucks in the process. The first thing was to get good pictures of all the items. What I found out was that I was very particular when it came to taking a picture of something I mean I wanted it perfect. I had a small simple point and shoot camera and like most everyone else would just set it on automatic and take a picture, well those pictures were horrible and I just could not except them. I knew I needed to learn more about how to take a good picture so I got the camera manual out and started reading about what the other settings were, like aperture and shutter mode. I spent hours trying to get an exceptable picture of things and soon found the limitations of this camera and it frustrated me. I got the pictures as good as I could put the stuff on ebay sold them and moved on but, during this brief time of a month or so something hit me like a ton of bricks, and that was taking a good picture is very challenging and technical and one has to know how a camera works how light plays a role, composition, exposure and so on in order to even begin taking good pictures, at that moment the learning process began.
Scott: How did you learn photography?
Brad: To answer that simply it was; read, learn, practice then repeat just like it still is today. I know for a fact that I will forever be learning photography, and that is the draw.
I would say I’m a technical guy by nature kind of a geek when it comes to stuff, if I don’t know how something works it bugs me and I have to find out. Over the following months from my initial draw I wasn’t just “interested” in photography but it became an obsession I couldn’t get enough, the more I learned the more I realized how much I didn’t know. As I learned things I would practice them but I no longer had a desire to take pictures of nicknacks or things around the house I was drawn to the outdoors and taking pictures of trees, birds the sky and clouds. I remember trying to take pictures of ants as they hurried across the back deck and thinking, how do people do this and getting right! Something else hit me very strong along with learning all the technical parts of photography and that was this could be a never-ending journey and I liked that, a never-ending challenge of doing something creative, I had never been exposed to something like that. At some moment during this time it turned from a challenge to a passion. With my continual reading of everything I could find on photography I began to understand things like exposure and why somethings in a photograph were totally white and some totally black and everything in between was considered proper exposure. Along with all this technical stuff and passion for making a good picture I realized something else, this creative thing of making a picture filled a part of my life that I never knew existed and it literally made me feel like a different person. Maybe that is a slight stretch, the different person thing but I looked at things in a way I never looked at them before. I had a sense of wonder about the world around me and began to notice just how amazing things like trees and leaves and the big open lands around me really were. It literally opened my eyes to life. For ones photography to be more than just taking pictures there must be a personal connection to the subject and the camera led me straight to the natural world around me which is very personal.
Scott: What photographers have influenced/inspired you?
Brad: When a family member who is a professional portrait photographer found out I was really getting into photography she gave me a book, it was “The Nature Photographer’s Complete Guide To Professional Field Techniques” by John Shaw. I must have read through that book 10 times before I could put it down and to this day it is my favorite book on photography. It is an older book so there was nothing on digital photography in it but the way John wrote and explained things made perfect since to me. In my opinion John Shaw’s work is among the best in the world and just reading about how he goes about things had a big influence on me from the beginning, that is what I wanted to do. Jim Zuckerman who does amazing things with images in Photoshop also inspired me tremendously from the start. Then I ran across the work of Darwin Wiggett a photographer from Alberta Canada and was amazed at the beauty he captures of everything he shoots. Then I took a trip to Arkansas with the Central States Nature Photographers group in the spring of 2008 and was turned on to Tim Ernst work that I very much am inspired by. So those are 4 big name long time professional’s that really got my juices flowing and to this day inspire me. And for goodness sakes the work of Charles Cramer that I discovered not long ago blows me away it’s amazing! But the list of other mostly unknown photographers whose work I find inspirational could go on and on. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the works of Mark Graf, Judd Patterson, Stephen Weaver. I know it’s not right that I only mention a few but I better stop before I get carried away. I have to mention one more name in this group of inspiring photographers and that is Michael Forsberg. Not only are his images inspirational to me but his passion and desire when it comes to conservation specifically of the great plains is as inspiring to me as anything I have come across.
(Scott: Interestingly John Shaw’s book Brad mentions had a huge influence on me as well, one of the first books on nature photography I read and I bet have read through it 10 times as well, excellent book!)
Scott: What piece of advice would you give photographers just starting out today? What is one of the most important things they need to remember?
Brad: The single most important thing one can do to improve their photography is to take pictures, lots and lots of pictures and when you think your done take some more. It is with this constant process that one discovers what they know and what they need to learn. Over the last 6 years I have taken approximately 40,000 pictures and to me it should have been 100,000. That may sound like a lot but it really isn’t compared to the highly successful photographers today. You need to make the camera part of your everyday life, what this does is forces you to look at everything as a potential photograph and in turn it begins to develop your eye to what could make a good photograph. Of course this can take years if not a lifetime so just doing it once in a while will get you no where it has to be done consistently as in everyday.
(Scott: This is excellent advice, for some reason a lot of people seem to discount the idea of ‘practice’ when it comes to learning photography).
Scott: So why do you make photographs?
Brad: I make photographs because I love what I’m taking photographs of. I grew up in the small town of Onaga, Kansas. Born in 1960 when there were no gaming consoles or computers in the home, no cell phones and 3 channels on the television. So if I wanted to past time and have fun I had one choice, go outside and play. The outdoors held more adventure and possibilities for enjoyment than anything else I could think of so that’s where I spent all my free time. This amazement with the outdoors has somehow been reborn with photography. The camera gives me a reason to explore, enjoy be curious and inspired by nature. Probably more importantly making photographs forces me to slow down and really look at things not just glance at them as I’m driving by but to stop and really think about the world I live in and how precious things in nature are.
Scott: Photographers have an amazing array of tools at their disposal today to help achieve their creative expression…entire ranges of cameras from very small to large DSLR’s and digital medium format, ability to control all aspects of image processing, and to the ability to control the printing of their photos. What do you think about the possibilities for photographers today? How have all these options influenced your ability to fully express yourself and your vision in your photographs?
Brad: As far as the ability to express myself all these things help tremendously but they have to be kept in perspective. Your absolutely right, photographers have a mind-boggling amount of choices today and I think that is wonderful as long as you don’t get lost in the confusion. It’s very hard to not get caught up in all the new things that are constantly coming out. Here’s what I think about all this; if you can afford to get all the cool new stuff great, do it, play with everything you can get your hands on, but at some point a person needs to ask themselves what is it they really want to do? Then you have to honestly answer that question and then focus on that goal and work hard. But if your like myself I can’t afford to own all the latest cameras, lenses, bells and whistles instead I got what I could afford and learned to use it to the best of my ability. Don’t become a jack of all trades and master of none. Focus on your goal and work hard, then when you can get the things (camera, lens, software etc..) that will help you make progress towards your goal go for it.
As far as the ability to fully express myself and my vision in my photographs, I’m not sure that will every happen. That’s not meant as a negative but I have come to realize that equipment or software or any device has nothing to do with vision or expression that must come from within. Does it really matter what kind of brush a painter uses to express themselves, if they have passion they will find a way with whatever brush they can get their hands on. My photography is personal to me and I really only do it to please myself. For the last few months I have been having great fun taking pictures with my iPhone. It allows me to express something that a big camera can’t it is very spontaneous and has proven to me expression is not about what equipment one has but what feelings and emotions one has.
Scott: You’ve done a lot of photography in the Flint Hills, what drives/inspires you to shoot there?
Brad: Oh boy my favorite subject, the Flint Hills! I say that somewhat jokingly but very serious at the same time. As I mentioned I grew up in Onaga on the very eastern edge of the Flint Hills. I remember vividly driving to Wamego or Manhattan and the big hills we would go by and remembering how cool it would be to climb one of those. As a kid they were like mountains to me and represented the true nature of wild beauty, but at the time didn’t know just how much. OK, now flash forward to 2007-2008. My photography is now a big part of my life and looking at pictures of those who inspire me made it a no brainer that the Flint Hills is where I want to go take pictures but I really didn’t know where or how to get up close and personal in that landscape. This is when I discovered Konza Prairie and off I went. I hiked it regularly in the fall and winter of 2007 and started learning everything I could about it. I found out you could sign up and go out with a docent in the springtime and view prairie chickens which of course I had to do and did in March of 2008. The docent that morning was Chod Hedinger who is a friend of many that may read this including you Scott, how cool. Chod is a wealth of knowledge and not only did I get to watch what is truly a magical display of wildlife but Chod done something else to me that he may not have realized at the time. He shared not only his knowledge about prairie chickens but he shared his passion of nature. Which honestly meant more to me than viewing the wildlife. I knew after that morning the Flint Hills had a much deeper meaning to me than I ever imagined. I spent the next year again obsessed with learning about this unique landscape and in 2009 went through the docent training program myself. What a remarkable eye-opening it was and it captivated not only my mind but my soul for how precious this area of the world really is. And it is right here in Kansas and so very few people know much about it at all other than it is a bunch of hills, rocks and grass and that’s a shame. Thanks to Chod, Konza Prairie and the wonderful teachers who have been part of the docent training program namely Dr. Valarie Wright, the Flint Hills are and will forever be my favorite place on earth, hands down no question. I feel as if life starts again each time I venture into that land.
Scott: What is your favorite time of year to photograph the Flint Hills?
Brad: That would be spring, summer, fall and winter. That was easy! Now to be more specific I would say; April for the burns and the lush new growth of tallgrass as it blankets the land. May and June for the vast array of wildflowers. October and November for the beautiful changing of colors of the tallgrasses from their summer greens to autumn golds and bronze. And anytime in winter when snow blankets the rolling hills.
Scott: What special challenges does shooting in the Flint Hills present? What about shooting in Kansas in general?
Brad: I find more challenges every time I go out to shoot the Flint Hills. One thing that I have come to realize after thousands of pictures is the challenge of making an intimate photograph. The landscape is so vast with views from horizon to horizon that it’s hard to get something that isn’t just the big wide open spaces. I love the wide open landscape but many times in a photograph it all gets lost and you end up with just land and sky. That can be said for shooting in Kansas in general. It’s frustrating to hear when people think Kansas is just a big flat area of the U.S. but the truth is much of it is flat but flat doesn’t mean boring. Compared to mountains, oceans, canyons or forests most may think of Kansas landscape as boring but there is a much deeper, slower beauty here. It’s not the “in your face” kind like the well known hot spots. You can’t just point your camera anywhere and capture it you have to give yourself time to feel it. That is very challenging to produce in a photograph.
(Scott: This is a great statement about photographing Kansas!)
Scott: What do you hope your photographs say about the Flint Hills?
Brad: I hope they say if you want to find beauty in nature I am here waiting patiently. I want my photographs of the Flint Hills to bring a sense of wonder and enlightenment to this unique landscape. If I could make just one photograph in my life that conveyed my emotions to one single viewer I will have been successful.
Scott: You recently mentioned starting a book project on the Flint Hills, have you found that has inspired you to get out and shoot more? Have you found having a specific project has helped your creativity or changed the way you work/shoot?
Brad: I hope to have my first ebook out by the end of April or middle of May at the latest (but don’t hold me to that). It will focus on the Flint Hills. It does inspire me to get out more and to produce more imagery of the Flint Hills. Giving myself a project helps me stay focused on improvement. I purposely mentioned this project a month or so ago knowing that if I tell others I then have to deliver. It’s a way of forcing myself to set a goal and then take action to work towards it rather than just talking about it. I find it helps tremendously with the creative process, it’s easy just to set back and dream about doing something but nothing changes until you take action. It doesn’t really change the way I will shoot when out in the Flint Hills but it will make me focus more on producing what I consider meaningful photographs.
Scott: You’ve written a few times about the importance of getting out in nature, do you feel photography has enhanced your experience of being outside, of connecting to the landscapes you are photographing?
Brad: Photography has been a catapult when it comes to getting out in nature it’s really all I want to do. It enhances it in so many ways. I no longer just look at something and say “oh that’s nice” I try to find out just what it is that makes it nice then I have to find out exactly what it is and where it came from. It’s a vicious circle that I have grown to love. I feel I am but a very small part of this world and here for such a very short time but I have a choice, I can just get through life doing the best I can, or I can allow myself to become part of the bigger picture. To experience as much of the world as possible and learn to appreciate it for what it is. One doesn’t have to travel the world to do this it can be done right where you live. I no longer look at a blade of grass and think of it as just another plant. I think how beautiful it is when the light hits it just right.
Scott: Anything else you would like to add?
Brad: Every one seems to have a digital camera these days and if they don’t they have a phone that will take pictures so the world is literally becoming saturated with photos. This presents a new challenge to anyone wanting to be taken serious in their photography and the only way I see to meet that challenge is to produce photographs that go beyond the image itself. It’s one thing to take a picture of the Flint Hills it’s a completely different thing to take a picture of a unique and threatened part of the earth. It is in the way we translate a photograph from an image to a thought or emotion that will separate a true photographer from just someone who has a camera and takes pictures.
It has taken me 6 years to get to this point and the only regret I have is that I didn’t discover photography 30 years ago. I have so much to learn and look forward to every moment of it.
To finish things off you can see some more of Brad’s photographs below. I’d like to thank Brad for taking the time to complete this interview, I know it takes a lot of time and effort to put together answers to questions like these and I really appreciate that!