Welcome to the first interview in this series, featuring the work of photographers who inspire me. The impetus for this series came last year when I watched a few artists step on each other to climb the industry ladder. Honestly, it saddened me as we all have so much we can learn from each other. This makes us all better, and raises the quality of the art we create and share. I have been fortunate to have great success in my life in several industries, and my greatest successes have always come as a result of collaboration and networking. I have learned something from every artist I hope to feature on this site, and if I can share their work with a few new people I’ll count that as a huge win.
For this inaugural interview I am featuring the work of Olaf Sztaba, a fellow Vancouver based photographer. I first found Olaf’s work two years ago, and was immediately caught by the beauty created in his images. Olaf has a well developed eye for light and composition. Look at the image at the top of this post: The bold light, those clouds, the colours, the composition, that lone tree… there is so much happening in that image.
Like me, Olaf is a photographer who travels often for the purposes of photography, and is someone who is willing to go the extra mile to put himself into a place where he has the best chance of making an image he is proud of. He is a photographer that focuses on vision much more than he focuses on gear, and I think the results of his efforts speak for themselves.
With that said, let’s kick off ten questions with Olaf Sztaba…
Thank you for being a part of this interview series. Can you start by talking a little about your personal journey through photography?
First of all thank you, Ian, for having me as your first guest – what a privilege!
It was my Mom who first drew my attention to visuals and design. Even though her education was in Economics, she has always paid attention to the way things look. For example, she would say to my father: “This tie doesn’t match your shirt” or she would arrange elements on the table in a way that created a beautiful whole – everything went together in terms of shape, colour, etc. Back then as a teenager I didn’t take much notice of it but this visual sensitivity not only raised my awareness of design but it helped me to see and arrange elements in a photograph later on.
The pivotal moment came years later when my wife Kasia and I moved to Canada. In 2003 I became very ill and spent six months in hospital, mostly in the intensive care unit. During this time, I was connected to life-saving equipment and I couldn’t move or talk. During these months my only contact with the outside world was visuals. I spent hours staring at my room, surroundings, people. To keep my mind busy, I created hundreds of visuals or “photographs” in my head, some of which I remember to this day. I promised myself that if I survived this ordeal I would pursue my dreams.
I did and later after a kidney transplant, I was born again. I was given a new chance. This time I knew the art of seeing would be the central element of my life. Thanks to the support of my wife Kasia, I was able to pursue my passion and grow as a human being and as a photographer.
Zack Arias once said, “Photography calls many, but chooses few.” Your work, both your writing and your photography, are infused with an obvious love and passion for the art. What is it that draws you to it?
I am glad you mention Zack Arias because he is a great photographer – very honest in his message and his work.
Coming back to your question, three things draw me to photography: the individual, almost solitary dimension of photography, the fusion of the intellectual and intuitive processes of seeing, and photography as a language of communication.
I have found photography to be a very individual and intimate activity. Seeing is specific to a person’s feelings, experiences and visual sensitiveness. Therefore, when I take a photo I build a barrier around me and focus all my senses on the scene. Sometimes when I happen to take photos along with others, they tell me afterwards that I didn’t respond to them. It was as though I was not present. That is because I tend to merge into the scene – work with what I see as creatively as I can – and this requires my full attention. It is my therapy, medicine – it is my Zen time. I build a wall around me and don’t allow any interference.
Then, the process of creating a photograph, and especially arranging the elements, is unique to you. It requires the senses, the elements within you, which I have found we don’t usually use in our daily life. The moment when I am exploring, visualizing, rearranging and creating is very special to me. I find it fascinating and liberating.
Finally, sharing my work with others is a form of communication – it is my preferred way of having a conversation with the world.
I find it amazing that you can look at your surroundings, environment, people – be attracted to the scene at a certain moment in time – find a connection with it – arrange the elements of that scene and create a photograph. You can communicate with others using just a photograph. Very often this photograph is more powerful than words. How amazing is that!
What do you feel are the key elements in a compelling photograph? What makes a photograph “work”?
Excellent question! The starting point of a photograph that “works” is always a connection. There must be some type of emotional, intellectual, visual or even physical connection to the subject. This interrelation may not be immediately apparent to the photographer but it develops as s/he engages with the scene. The starting point of the connection doesn’t have to be profound – it could be as obvious as the aesthetics of a scene.
But it is always a two-way street. Let me give you an example.
I recently went to photograph a rally in support of the victims of the attacks in Paris. My objective was to document the event. While photographing the participants, a Muslim woman caught my attention as she lit a candle for the victims of the Paris attack. Her stoic, emotional persona along with a tear in her eye triggered a chain of emotions, a sense of presence and a deep connection to the scene. All I had to do was turn this emotional awareness into a creative process and a photograph. All these elements interconnect.
Once the connection with the scene has been established, the next natural steps are visualization and composition. Unfortunately, today many people hurry this important element. Framing or composing is one of the most important aspects of a great photograph. Without it, an image will suffer because it won’t work. The other way to think about a composition is to view it as a process of elimination. My goal is always to eliminate as many elements as possible and leave only the essential parts, which create a harmonious whole. Such simplicity in seeing is incredibly difficult to achieve. In fact, simple photographs are the most difficult to take.
In sum, a photograph that “works” is not created by accident. It is a deliberate effort to connect with a scene, visually engage it and rearrange elements of the scene so that it creates a compelling whole. It is a much more elaborate process than just pressing the shutter button.
What do you want people to feel when they view your photographs?
Most importantly I want people to pause and immerse themselves in my photograph. Nowadays, the Internet is flooded with photos and people glance over them at an incredible speed. There is a mania for “likes,” “votes,” “favourites.” But in fact, the common “popular” and a great image have very little in common.
The fact that someone slowed down and took a few seconds from their busy day to look at my photograph is already a great compliment. Then some people take it further, take more time, examine the image in more detail. This is where emotional or visual sensation is being awakened. I want people to have a conversation with my photographs. It may involve asking questions: Where is it? Where was it taken? Sometimes photographs evoke answers: I was there. I know this place. After viewing one of my photographs, one man wrote a note to me saying that I was able to capture a particular place exactly as he remembered it as a child. And sometimes people just enjoy the arrangements of elements – design – plain and simple.
If my image triggers an emotional and/or visual response in a viewer, I have succeeded. It is not how many people see your image but the way in which they react to it.
As artists we struggle at times to create the images we see in our mind. What challenges do you face when creating images?
Struggles to see, moments of doubt or even occasional visual blindness – as unpleasant as they may be – are important and a necessary part of being a photographer. In a society where failure is linked with weakness, most of us try to fight it or ignore it but such an approach never works – at least for me.
Instead, I try to accept or even embrace such struggles and leave my camera at home for a while. It may take weeks, but following this emotional and visual cleansing I always notice big changes. I feel, think and see differently. I pick up my camera and see better. I am more engaged. Very often, I take a new direction until… I hit another wall.
I am very fortunate to have a partner in crime, my wife, Kasia. I was able to grow as a photographer, to go through such difficult times thanks to her support. Most importantly I was able to improve thanks to her genuine critique. Very often we sit down together and discuss our photographs from every dimension in great detail. Thanks to her, lots of ”rubbish” I produce doesn’t find its way onto our blog.
How much of your photography is instinct, versus planned?
I would say that most of my photography is instinct. It doesn’t mean that I don’t plan.
I am always drawn to lesser-known, less-travelled places. Therefore, most of my travels around North America are done by car. In this way I can explore small, unknown places where it is rare to encounter people, much less a photographer. Sometimes I read an article about a place but most locations I discover by accident or by wandering around. I always try to take rural roads and go to places that are not featured in tourist guides.
Sure, I do some sort of preparation. However, most of the time I react to what I see. For example, when photographing the Palouse, most photographers drive to Steptoe Butte where they get an amazing overview of the Palouse. In spring this place is swarming with photographers. In such busy locations I immediately feel disengaged. I long for something new – unplanned, not yet photographed. I then wander around rural roads in the Palouse for days – sometimes with no results. However, after you find your own scene the reward is amazing.
Can you describe your workflow, from conception to final image?
I am a disciple of “do the best you can in the camera.” I pay special attention to composition and light. Although I look through my viewfinder quite intensively I limit the number of images I take. I learnt to say NO – over and over. The photographs that end up in my library are the ones I feel very strongly about. While transferring the images to my computer I don’t apply any settings. I prefer working with each image later.
I delete a lot – in fact most of my work. Then I focus on images that stand out. I apply my basic presets to them – emulsion (for example Classic Chrome), adjust exposure, highlights/shadows – sharpening preset – all very basic. Then I decide which images will be turned into Black and White using Silver Efex Pro software.
In general, I don’t have any secret formula. I only spend time on the strongest images and work on each image individually. I work with Lightroom, don’t use Photoshop, don’t do layers, etc. I never remove any objects from my photographs. I try to keep it simple and real.
What gear do you currently use, and how has that gear allowed you to make the images you see in your mind?
For many years I have worked with Canon and Nikon gear. I never felt attached to these cameras or particularly excited about them. Then, by accident I had the chance of playing with the newly released Fujifilm X100. Something clicked and I bought this camera. For the first few weeks I was shooting with my Nikon SLR along with the X100. In time my Nikon stayed at home and I worked exclusively with the X100.
Not only does this camera accompany me everywhere but it also connects with me as a photographer in a way that I have never experienced with my other gear. I sold my Nikon gear, added X-Pro1 and a few lenses to my collection and started shooting exclusively with the X-series cameras.
My current bag contains Fuji X100S, Fuji X-T1, XF 14mm F2.8, XF 35mm F1.4, XF 56mm F1.2 and the only zoom XF 50-140mm F2.8 (which I only take with me occasionally).
Something “clicks” for me when working with the X-series cameras. Maybe it’s the fact that I can physically “feel” knobs when adjusting exposure, changing shutter speed, etc. – all the dials are in reach. Maybe it’s the fact that I can see my final photograph before I press the shutter button due to the excellent viewfinder. Or maybe it’s just size – the fact that I can travel and walk without worrying that I have to carry heavy gear.
These cameras, especially the Fuji X100S/T have become part of my process of seeing. They feel and look as if they were designed just for me.
What advice can you provide new and aspiring photographers, be it technical or creative? What do you wish you had known when you were new?
When browsing the Internet, you will come to the conclusion that photography is one big quest for technical perfection. People spend hours arguing about gear, sharpening, techniques and so on. There are thousands of photos so immaculately processed and Photoshopped that their technical perfection creates awe and envy in aspiring photographers. But many of the photos remind me of something I have seen before. They somehow feel plastic, artificial and cold. They lack emotion and authenticity. Today’s excessive focus on the technical aspects of photography creates many experts/photographers who CANNOT SEE.
In the meantime, those who produce a great body of work don’t even consider themselves photographers. They grab any camera and create. Do they care about sharpening? NO! Do they spend hours with Photoshop? NO! For them, technical augmentation is a distraction.
Learning how to connect and see must always be the starting point. Grab a simple camera with one prime lens and learn to see. Master one focal length! Refrain from buying lots of gear – it will complicate your road to seeing. Read non-technical books and start with JPEGs. Observe light and take your time arranging elements in your frame. Learn to say NO – you don’t have to press the shutter button all the time! Don’t worry about sharpness! Take risks! Avoid “advisors” who always talk about gear but never show you their imagery.
Finally, never ever go with “I wish my photographs were as good as…” NO! NO! NO! You must find your own way of seeing and create your own imagery.
I wish I had known all of this when I started. I squandered too much of my energy on technical nonsense.
Where can people learn more about your work?
Please visit my blog, www.olafphotoblog.com, where I write about photography and publish most of my and my wife’s work.
I’d like to thank my friend Olaf for participating in this interview series. I hope you enjoyed it, and I’m looking forward to bringing you another interview very soon!