scott bean photography

Interview with Harland Schuster

I’ve been neglecting my blog lately (I’m lucky it is still speaking to me!) and I’m looking forward to posting on a regular basis again.  To get things rolling again, I’m posting my third interview with a Kansas based photographer, this time with Harland Schuster (if you need a warmup before diving into Harland’s interview, you can read past interviews with Jim Griggs and Brad Mangas).  I’ve really enjoyed doing these interviews so before we get started I’d like to thank Harland for making the time to do this.  Thanks Harland!

I think I probably first saw Harland’s work in Kansas! Magazine and was amazed by his work.  Some of Harland’s photographs that I like most feature very striking compositions and bold light.

(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster

One of Harland’s photographs that really grabbed my attention is the sunflower field above. This photograph has great color and a very striking composition. It seems many of the sunflower field photographs you see are made shooting into the sunflowers. I love how this photograph captures the sunflowers ‘looking’ at the sun.  This is one of those “wish I was there” scenes that I love about photography.  To get the interview started, I asked Harland about this photograph.

Scott: What was it about this scene that got your attention, what made you want to create a photograph of this?

Harland:  A field of blooming sunflowers is always a compelling subject.  Throw in an interesting sky, and it’s nearly impossible to resist.  For me, one of the biggest challenges is to settle down enough mentally from the visual stimulation of the scene so that I can concentrate on the process of making an image.  To help with this process, I ask myself “What specific element drew me to the scene and made me want to photograph it?”.  Once I’ve answered this question, I try to do a 360 degree walk around of the subject.  If I can’t actually do this physically, I do it mentally, imagining what the subject might look like from various angles.  In the case of this image, I decided that I wanted to include the sunflowers, the dramatic clouds and the sunrise since I felt these were the visual elements that drew me to the scene in the first place.  Once this was determined, the process became a mechanical one of getting the camera in place, selecting a lens with a focal length that matched the image of the scene I had in my mind’s eye, making sure the focus was sharp, and actually depressing the shutter.

[Finding a way to make yourself slow down when making a photograph is great advice and one of the issues I struggle with when I’m behind the camera; I’m going to try the ‘360’ degree walk around next time I’m out shooting].

Scott: The light in this photo is fantastic; did you face any particular challenges shooting this photo?

Harland:  Broken overcast at sunrise or sunset can make for dramatic light, if the sun can find a hole in the clouds while it’s still low on the horizon.  This image was taken at sunrise, and the first challenge is to actually get out of bed in time for sunrise.  While this might sound flippant, over the years I’ve found this to be the biggest challenge:  To roll out of a warm, soft bed and to pull my shoes on in the pre-dawn darkness with no guarantee that this effort will be rewarded, and in fact knowing that the chances are actually against it.  Pulling your shoes on can be the hardest thing you’ll do all day.  Curiosity and anticipation of what the sunrise might bring usually gets the task accomplished.  I tend to prefer the light at sunrise to the light at sunset, though you can have some very good light at the end of the day as well.  I think the light tends to be a bit more blue and magenta at sunrise compared to sunset, and if conditions are right you can also have a chance at some mist or fog which you rarely get at sunset here on the plains.  In this particular image I had to deal with some wind and the threat of some sprinkles which were off to the west and moving my way that morning.  If you hike out into blooming sunflowers, as I did for this image, you’ll also discover quickly that blooming sunflowers produce a lot of pollen which can find its way into your equipment if you aren’t careful.  There are also tons of bugs out there, though other than the creepy feeling of them crawling on you, are more annoying than anything else.  There’s not much you can do about the bugs, but to deal with the threat of sprinkles and pollen I usually bring along a trash bag which will cover the camera body and lens if conditions warrant.  A one cent trash bag will provide decent emergency protection for a $2000+  camera and lens, and that’s a bargain you shouldn’t pass up.  The wind is harder to deal with, but it is a fact of life here on the plains.  I took several shots of this scene, trying to time my exposures at that brief instant when the wind takes a break between gusts.  Most of the time this works, though I’ll always take multiple exposures under these conditions hoping that in at least one of them the foreground subjects are sharp.

[Windy in Kansas?…I guess it is occasionally 🙂  Shooting multiple shots in windy conditions is also great advice and a good way to get a frame when the wind dies down a bit].

Now on to some more general questions for Harland…

Scott: How did you get started in photography?

Harland: I honestly can’t remember.  I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in photography to some extent.  I’ve always seen images of scenes in my mind’s eye, but I could never make my hands transfer these images to paper via drawing or painting, so I’ve had to resort to photography to convey my vision of the world to other people.  My first camera was a Kodak X-15 (with Magic Cube flash!) which used 126 cartridge film.  Very early on, I experimented with Black and White print film.  This was because you could afford to develop and print B/W in a home darkroom while color print film was more expensive and complicated than I wanted to tackle in my early teens.  I learned most of the process on my own by reading about it.  Kodak was a tremendous resource as they seemed to turn out endless books and pamphlets on the subject of home darkroom developing of Kodak films.  As you might expect, growing up in rural Kansas you couldn’t just go to the corner store to buy photo chemicals and paper, so these were either ordered though the mail or bought on rare trips to either Wolfe’s in Topeka or Zercher’s in St. Joseph, MO.  Though it is much easier to manipulate images on the computer these days, I wouldn’t trade the experience I gained developing my own film and printing my own images in the home darkroom.  You learn photography from the ground up that way, and there’s still nothing quite like the magic of watching one of your images appear–as if by magic–on a blank white piece of paper held in the developer tray and viewed under the reddish glow of the darkroom “safe light”.  It wasn’t too long before I wanted more creative control than the Kodak X-15 could offer, so I started using my dad’s Agfa rangefinder 35 mm camera.  This camera, too, had its limits, so I eventually bought my first SLR 35 mm camera, a “Practica” (made in East Germany).  It was fully manual everything, except it had a built in, through the lens, center weighted light meter, which was pretty fancy stuff considering what I had been using.  Eventually I stopped doing B/W and stopped doing the darkroom thing.  It was easier and cheaper to shoot color print film and have a lab do the processing. When the Practica SLR died, I moved on to Nikon cameras and eventually to Canon.  Somewhere along the line, my work improved to the point that people actually wanted to publish it, and in a still pre-digital age, that meant switching from print film to color slides which were the standard for publishing.  Shooting slide film made you a better photographer because exposure had to be “dead on” and you had to get everything right in camera because mistakes couldn’t be corrected in the printing stage like they could be with print film.  Like just about everybody else, as soon as I shot digital there was no going back to film.  I wouldn’t want to go back to shooting slide film, but I’m glad for the appreciation I gained for getting things right “in camera” when shooting slide film. 

Scott: How did you learn photography, what were some of the things that helped you along when you were just learning?

Harland: I’m still learning!  I’ve had no formal education in photography, though I regret not taking advantage of the opportunity during my school years.  I think I would have learned more quickly and would be a better photographer if I’d had some formal education in the subject.  Early on, I read quite a bit from those trusty Kodak pamphlets and learned from just taking pictures and learning from my mistakes.  It’s tough, but you really need to be your own worst critic, and you won’t improve if you make excuses for the mistakes you make.  I remember one of the books that helped me the most was Kodak’s “Complete Guide to 35 mm Photography”.  This book did a great job covering basics like the “rule of thirds”, advice on exposure, how the quality of light changes throughout the day, and much more.  Even in the digital age, I’d still recommend the book, though it’s long since out of print.  I used to subscribe to various photo magazines.  There can be some great advice in these, though I eventually dropped most of them when it seemed like they rotated the same articles through over and over.  About the only one I still get is Outdoor Photographer magazine which seems to keep fairly fresh with its content and advice.  I’ve learned quite a bit from art directors and photo editors for whom I’ve worked.  Most of these have worked as photographers in the field at some point in their career, and you can benefit quite a bit from their experience if you ask them for advice.  One of the best learning experiences has been going to the Great Plains Nature Photographers meetings, .  Not only are these a good chance to network with other people interested in photography, it’s a great opportunity to listen and learn from some world-class photographers who have been brought in as speakers for the group meetings.  

 I’ve also always “dissected” images that catch my eye, trying to figure out how the photographer made the image.  You can actually learn quite a bit from this process.  

[‘dissecting’ images to figure out how they were made is another great piece of advice and a great way to improve your photography]

Scott: What photographers have influenced/inspired you?

Harland: I really like the work of Jim Richardson and Joel Sartore.  Both are Midwestern photographers doing world-class work, making images that really burn into your memory.  The late Steve Harper did some very nice photography here in Kansas, and his work did more to wake me up to the photographic potential of Kansas than anything else.  I like the work of Mike Forsburg, a Lincoln, NE based nature photographer who does some cutting edge photography of nature subjects right here in the Great Plains region.

Scott: What piece of advice would you give photographers just starting out today and what is one of the most important things they need to remember?

Harland: Don’t get hung up on buying the latest and most expensive equipment to start out with.  It really burns my toast to watch somebody in a camera store being sold way more camera than they need or have the interest in learning how to use.  The single most important piece of equipment you have is your mind.  That is where your vision resides, not in your equipment, no matter how fancy it might be.  Your photo equipment just helps you to share your vision with others, it doesn’t create that vision.  Digital technology is great, but don’t rely on software as a crutch to fix your mistakes or make up for the fact that you want to take your landscape shots at high noon.  For landscape photography, high noon is a good time to take a nap, but usually not a good time to take pictures.  I don’t care how much HDR or Photoshop work you do to an image, it’s still going to be a high noon shot when you get done with it, just like you can’t make a hamburger patty into a sirloin steak by putting Cream of Mushroom soup on it, no matter how much Cream of Mushroom soup you add.  If you want to have success at photography, you have to work very hard and your work has to be very good.  Get up early and stay out late…many times just a few minutes will make a huge difference in a landscape shot.

Scott: So why do you make photographs, what motivates you to head out the door with your camera?

Harland: At the heart of it all is my need to share the images I have in my mind’s eye with others.  This is still the same as it has always been.  I think this is the same thing that drives all photographers, and all artists for that matter.  I find landscape photography to be especially relaxing mentally.  If for some reason it’s been a while since I’ve had the chance to do some landscape photography, I can feel myself tensing up mentally.  It’s a great release to go out and shoot a landscape.  Beyond that, it’s nice to be standing out on a hill at sunrise or sunset, and landscape photography gives you a great reason to be there doing that.  It’s always great to “bag” a good landscape shot, but just being out there soaking up the sounds and smells can be rewarding for its own merit.  Wildlife photography can be an exercise in frustration at times, but it can also be very satisfying when you are able capture the natural grace and beauty of wild animals in their natural environment.

Scott: You’ve done a lot of shooting all over the state, what is your favorite location in Kansas to photograph?

Harland: Each region of the state has its own virtues.  I’m reluctant to name any one area above others.  If pressed I would say the Flint Hills region has been the most consistently rewarding in terms of landscape photography.  The landscape image potential of the Tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills can compete with any landscape.  The area has a unique topography with plenty of leading lines and changes in elevations which lend themselves into pleasing compositions.  With the wildflowers and verdant greens of the grasses in spring and early summer, you can have some truly world-class landscape photography potential.

Scott: What do you find most challenging about photographing Kansas?

Harland: The number one problem I’ve found is lack of public lands here in Kansas.  Time and again I’ve found myself saying “This place would be a state park if it were in any other state besides Kansas.”  Castle Rock, Monument Rocks, Big Brutus, Clements stone bridge come to mind immediately, but I could name many more such places in Kansas.  The state parks we do have here in Kansas seem to be in a poor state of repair in general.  I’ve found that you can sometimes work your way around these challenges by building a rapport with private land owners to gain access to locations with landscape potential.  But overall I find it disappointing that we seem to have so little interest in showcasing the beauty of our state here in Kansas.  We certainly have the scenic potential.  What we lack is the political will to fund and create a decent state park system.  If you’ve been to state parks in our region, for example those in Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma, etc., it doesn’t take long to realize how pathetic and dowdy our state park system really is in comparison to our neighbors.  There’s no good reason for this.  We have the same potential they have.  But for whatever reason, here in Kansas we choose not to exploit this potential into a decent system of state parks. 

Scott: What do you want your photographs to say about Kansas?

Harland: It’s seems like a lot of folks think Kansas is all flat and boring.  I try to challenge that belief with my work.  Kansas has a subtle beauty.  It’s not always something you can appreciate by driving down the Interstate highway.  Our hills, valleys and prairies don’t shout for attention in the same way that mountain ranges and seashores do, but the beauty is there all the same.  Kansas is shy.  She beckons with a whisper.  With my landscape images, I hope to convince at least a few people to listen for that whisper.

[I love Harland’s description of the Kansas landscapes here and love the idea of getting people to “listen for that whisper”]

Scott: You recently completed a major project creating the photographs for the book “8 Wonders of Kansas Guidebook”, what were some of the challenges you faced in photographing the wide range of subjects for the book?

Harland:  The biggest challenge on the 8 Wonders project was getting 215 geographically scattered subjects photographed in less than six months.  The deadline was short since the goal was to have the book printed and ready for sale in time for the 150th anniversary of Kansas’ statehood in 2011.  I’d never worked on a book project before, so it was a tremendous opportunity when Marci Penner and the Kansas Sampler Foundation gave me the opportunity to do the project.  I have never worked so hard on anything in my life.  For most of the days when I was on the road, I would average five hours of sleep.  On a typical day, I would photograph five or six subjects, and drive about 200 miles.  At the end of the day, I needed to download cards, and backup images onto two portable drives, and charge camera batteries.  It was usually midnight by the time I showered and got to bed.  By 4 or 5 AM, it was usually time to roll out of bed, pack things up and head out to be ready for a landscape shot at sunrise, and so on.   For the majority of the work, I would work for five days on the road, come home for two days, then hit the road again.  By the fifth day on the road, I was usually dragging, but it’s a situation where you have to force yourself to stay focused mentally.  My wife, Suzanne, deserves a lot of credit for keeping things going around home, in addition to working her own full time job.  I couldn’t have done it without her.  Marci Penner lined up most of the photo shoots.  I would usually give her a schedule and she’d do her best to get everybody lined up so that mostly about all I had to do was show up and shoot.  If you’ve ever had to line up people for a photo shoot, you know it’s like herding cats.  Marci really had her hands full considering all the other activities the Kansas Sampler Foundation has going on all the time.  Suzanne would book the lodging based on my schedule which was also a big help since there usually wasn’t enough extra time in my schedule to deal with this.  With very few exceptions, the landscape shots in the book were all taken during that “golden hour” after sunrise and before sunset.  Otherwise, we’d schedule all other shoots during the day since quality of light wasn’t a consideration for images taken inside buildings.  Most of the subjects were quite helpful and understanding.  There were a few glitches along the way, but overall it was amazing how smoothly our system worked.  Looking back, I can’t believe we did it, but we did. 

[If you have a chance make sure and check out the book “8 Wonders of Kansas Guidebook” (which earlier this year won first place in the North American Travel Journalists Association travel book/guide category)  and if you want to follow Suzanne’s photography and travels, check out her blog: Window On The Prairie]

Scott: What were some of your favorite experiences from doing the work for the book?

Harland: I finally got to shoot from a helicopter.  I’ve always wanted to do this.  A helicopter is the Cadillac of all aerial photo platforms and it was a blast to finally get to work from one.  As a bonus, the pilot took Suzanne up for a ride after I finished the Blue Rapids shots, which was quite a thrill for her as well.  Otherwise, I would say it was a great experience to get out and see some of the most scenic places in the state and meet a lot of really great people.

Scott: Anything else you would like to add?

Harland: My interest in Photography has broadened my horizons.  It has helped me to meet a greater number and variety of people than I would have met otherwise.  I’m sure it has changed my view of the world.  As a photographer, you see the world differently than other folks, and you just flat see more of it.  Photography has led me down more dirt roads than I can count, sometimes with the reward of a promising vista, but more often with only the reward of just being out there on the open prairie alone to ponder my thoughts.  I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything, and I just hope that other photographers have as much fun as I do.

The idea of having fun with your photography is very important and one I hope people (me included) don’t lose sight of.

Thanks again to Harland for taking the time to do this interview (especially with me being so slow to get it going!).  You can see more of Harland’s work on his website:  I’ll end the interview with a few of Harland’s photographs below.

(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster


(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster
(C) Harland Schuster

Scott (249)

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