Carl Heilman II is a bit of a legend in the Adirondacks. He’s a soft-spoken man who is both friendly and elusive, and something of a business model for the modern freelance photographer. So many people know his work, know him, and see him regularly in towns and villages throughout the region. His photography has supported him and his family, through vehicles such as a very successful series of books, photography workshops, and public showings of his work. And many people have purchased the large panoramas to hang in the homes.
But what makes Carl special is his photography.
The Adirondacks make it easy to find a good shot, but few can match the unique splendor of Carl’s. He hikes the mountain summits at dawn and dusk, and canoes the lakes to find his shots from perspectives few other people will ever see. “Photography was really an extension of what I was already doing,” he says.
So here is the first of a two-part interview, where we focus on how Carl gets his extraordinary landscape shots, including the panoramas he’s best known for.
ARTS ENCLAVE: How do you determine what you want to shoot on a particular day, where you want to shoot, or what you’re looking for?
Carl Heilman: There are just so many variables…A basic rule of thumb I’ll use is that if it’s a sunnier day, I’ll tend to work out in the open and do more open landscape work, and if it’s a cloudier, softer kind of a day, then I’ll work in the woods or along the water in areas that are enhanced by the softer low light.
AE: Are you usually working from a general plan of what you’re trying to cover? You’ve done so many books―are you working through the books?
CH: When I have a book project, then everything revolves around the book. And all the location work is related directly to the book. I have a hit list that I’m going for and just work my way through the list, depending on the light, where I happen to be, what the weather is, and all different kinds of variables that I’m looking for to capture the images for the book.
Right now I don’t have a project―I have a project coming up, but in some ways it doesn’t require a lot of shooting―so now it’s more like when I used to be doing it for fun. I get an idea in my head of where, keep checking the weather for the location, and then take off for some early light on a mountain hike when the conditions are just right. When I do that I’m just going out for a good time.
AE: So what do you think would be some of your signatures, other than obviously the landscape panorama?
CH: That’s a good question, because I try not to box myself in and I try to shoot a wide range of subject matter and angles. I have, over time, probably done a lot of close-up wider view landscape work, so that I have subjects quite near the image in a wider landscape. But I also photograph wildlife and people for projects I’ve done that cover anywhere from Times Square to Niagara Falls. I just did a book on the Maine Coast. Other people say they can see my photographs and say ‘that’s a Heilman’. I don’t know that I see it as much. I try to keep a broader view than working to specific parameters.
AE: I can see that. In the first place, you’re catching a lot of locations that other photographers aren’t catching. We can see that many of these other photos are taken by the side of the road, and yours aren’t.
CH: Well, that’s true. I love to be in the back country and that’s where I would rather be shooting all the time anyhow. My photography came as a result of being out in the mountains, rather than the other way around….Understanding weather has been important to me so that I can put myself in the right location at the right time. My goal is always to recreate the feeling of being there, not just take a picture of a place, but to try to have that emotional impact of what it was to be there in that image. So if that’s what comes across to people, then that’s wonderful.
AE: Where would you focus on in an image? I’m thinking of a large print that was at Lakeshore Gallery last summer that a lot of people commented on. It was a fall scene, in the woods, the leaves on the ground, multicolored and the colors were so pushed. Do you remember which one I’m talking about?
CH: Oh sure. That’s one of the few images we have hanging at our house. That’s an image of a stream I came across on hike up Buck Mountain.
AE: A couple of painters were commenting on the low angle you shot it from. They said the perspective was particularly interesting. Was that intentional?
CH: That’s a way I often shoot, and with digital cameras and the smaller sensor, it allows me to get down even lower and closer. I usually see something that catches my eye and then I look for a way to bring more of a sense of the place into it, and oftentimes it’s working with the subject matter that way, getting closer to some of the subject matter at a lower angle or a different angle. But, on the other hand, for some images I appreciate the digital camera because of wide view where I can put it up over my head. I even took a shot recently where I had the camera on the tripod and used a cable release to get it up over my head to get an angle that I wasn’t able to get otherwise. So I’m just always playing with angles and so on.
AE: I have a little Fuji point and shoot, which I love. It’s a very simple camera. One of the posts that I did was from when I was at the Gathering of the Vibes. I’m too short to see the people on stage standing behind all the people in the open air audience.
So I just put the camera above my head and I got these shots of Dweezil Zappa that looked like I was right on top of him. It was amazing for a little 10 megapixel camera.
CH: The 10 megapixel shot from a point-and-shoot in the right light is just as good as a 10 megapixel shot from a full frame camera. I think there are issues when you get into low light situations, but it is amazing what these smaller cameras can do these days.
AE: Artistically, what do you think is different—because you’re covering the same terrain that all the plein air painters of the Adirondacks are doing…where do you think the two cross over and where do they separate?
CH: I had somebody in a workshop a while back who was a painter and we talked about how she used a camera to capture things to paint from, and she was saying how she appreciated the patience that it takes to get the photograph, to get all the right light and everything in it like that, and I said to her that I can’t imagine the patience it takes to paint that and recreate that image, with all the tones, in a painting. So I think part of the difference is in how we see things and how we interpret things…and it’s probably the way our brains work—mine works with photography. I couldn’t begin to be a painter. But the painter has the advantage of being able to enhance the scene—well, everybody does today, because with Photoshop you can add clouds and things—but people, when they see a photograph, still think of it as real. And people look at a painting as an artwork. It’s easier in an artwork to enhance the colors and light tones, and bring clouds into the sky. But if you do that with a photograph, people think you’re trying to fool them. They still expect reality.
AE: How far do you push it? Would you add clouds?
CH: Only on a rare occasion and only for a specific purpose. It’s usually for graphics work or something like that. When I’m reproducing an image for a print, I may take out a stray branch or something like that. There’s a difference between photo enhancement and photo manipulation. With photo manipulation, you’re putting new elements into the image―you’re bringing in clouds, you’re making major changes to the image. Photo enhancement is re-creating the feeling of the light as it was when you were there, and that’s what I try to do here with our images.
AE: Just last year, you were talking about how digital panoramic cameras were too expensive to switch to. Do you still do panoramas using your standard manual camera?
CH: I’ve been saying for such a long time I was going to change cameras…I’ve spent years using a standard panoramic camera to capture those images, but I was just recently playing around with shooting panoramas using a standard digital camera and I’m just amazed at how Photoshop 5 handles image files. It combines the images and stitches them together with such a seamless transition from single images into a panorama. I will probably be doing more with my digital camera from now on, just because it’s less equipment to carry and it really opens up a wider range of options than I had with panoramic cameras―although there will still be times I resort to the panoramic cameras, even though it uses film.
AE: So you like working with Photoshop…
CH: It’s very quick. We have a quad processor computer with 8 Gigs of RAM and 64 bit processor and PhotoShop CS5 will take five images and stitch them together seamlessly in less than a minute. That just blows me away…so the technology has advanced so much from when I first started doing panoramic work, and scanning our film and everything else that we had to do early on.
AE: What does that free you to do when you are taking the photographs?
CH: Digital has made it easier to put more of my thought into creativity rather than the technology, so it allows me to shoot more freely than I used to–and shoot more than I used to–because there are no more of the constraints associated with film. There are just so many more options for shooting with digital. Digital has just allowed me to play and do things that I often wanted to do with film but didn’t want to go through rolls of film to get perhaps one image. So now with digital, if something comes to mind, I can shoot it, and it’s just a lot of fun.
AE: You sound like pretty much a convert at this point…
CH: Oh, I was a convert from when I first got a scanner, really. I’ve been watching digital camera technology since 1990 and the first ones were $30,000 one megapixal cameras. They didn’t have the quality I was looking for and the cost was just way too high for what was practical here. So as Photoshop advanced and film scanners came available, we bought equipment in 1997 and began scanning my film and doing Photoshop work with PS4. As scanner technology improved, we upgraded scanners. As as the digital camera technology matured, I stepped into it with Nikon D200. At that point the 10 megapixel file ISO 200 file was better than a scanned Velvia 100 film image. Since the digital camera file was better than our scanned film I was an immediate convert. since the technology has kept getting better and faster I’m doing most of my panoramas that way now too.
AE: So you still use a Nikon?
CH: I’ve been using Nikon all along. I have a D300 and a D300S. And for the work I do, I prefer the APS format, a smaller sensor DSLR format versus a full frame sensor (DX vs. FX format), just for options for depth of field and composition.
AE: You develop most of the projects you work on, meaning you tend to pick your subjects―
CH: That was how I pursued it. I could have gone into wedding photography and a lot of other things that I know are a much higher income base than what I do, but my decision when I got into this was, ‘If I’m going to do photography, I’m going to do photography that I want to do, and if I can’t do that, then I’ll do something else because then it becomes work.’ And I’ve done a number of other things that I enjoyed that became work and it was important to me to keep this as enjoyable as possible because it was a passion, it wasn’t work. The business side does become a full time job, but when I have a camera in my hand, it’s still a passion, and I think it’s important to keep that kind of perspective if you’re going to go into it.
AE: How did you get started? Didn’t you start off with an engineering degree?
CH: I never had a degree in anything. I went to college in Pennsylvania for a while and had about 48 credits—what’s that, about a year and half? I was going for industrial arts because I wanted to learn more about cabinet making, and what I found was that they were just teaching me to teach, rather than teaching me to learn the details I needed about cabinet making. So I went to a 2 week cabinet making workshop, and found out that it wasn’t what I really wanted to do anyway. So I came back to the Adirondacks and started pursuing snowshoe making along with my carpentry.
AE: What got you started in photography?
CH: I started hiking when I was 19, soon after moving to the Adirondacks. After my first climb in the High Peaks I decided to pick up a camera in an attempt to recapture the feeling of being on those mountain tops. I picked up a Minolta 101, and a roll of Kodachrome 64 and began exploring the world of photography. While I was in college near my parents home in Pennsylvania, I took a course one semester in black and white. I still have the course curriculum instruction sheet, which I used for a number of years while I was learning photography.
But my passion has been the Adirondacks and the lakes and mountains up here. Every new lens I purchased offered a different perspective. Understanding the interplay between the aperture, shutter, and focal length gave me full control over the camera. Then in the mid 1990’s, working with the panoramic format cameras allowed me to more fully capture my goal of recreating the feeling of place. The great thing about photography is there is always some new angle, perspective or technique that allows the medium to stay just as fresh, inspiring, and challenging as it was the first time I picked up an SLR camera.
Check back in a few weeks for part two of this interview, where I talk with Carl about the business of freelance photography.
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Carl Heilman II has written a number of articles on snowshoe design as well as snowshoing and mountaineering. He has also led many snowshoing treks and workshops for the Adirondack Mountain Club and the Appalachian Mountain Club.)
In his latest book, Contemporary Landscape Photography, Carl offers his unique advice on the many things you can do using digital technology, an invaluable guide for amateur enthusiasts and professionals alike.
All photos seen here (except for Dweezil Zappa, © Linda Peckel, 2008) are provided under copyright by Carl Heilman II, and are available for purchase at his website. To see his gallery, learn about his workshops, buy his books, or even read his articles on snowshoeing, visit his extensive website at: www.carlheilman.com or www.naturepanoramas.com.
Carl also invites you to become a ‘fan’ of his facebook pages, http://www.facebook.com/NaturePhotographyWorkshops and http://www.facebook.com/NaturePhotographyTips.
Carl Heilman II – email@example.com / firstname.lastname@example.org
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