Could you describe your home country of India from a photographer’s point of view?
India is unique. It is a blend of geographical and cultural diversity that lends itself very well to the medium of photography. From the awe-inspiring landscapes of the Himalayas to the sun-kissed shores of Kerala, it is an amalgam of colours and culture that is a treat for any photographer irrespective of their genre. This, combined with the friendly welcoming nature of the people, and the fact that a significant number of them are proficient in English, makes it relatively easy to travel around the country and fulfil one’s passion for photography.
It is a very exciting country and should be on all photographers’ list of destinations to visit. When did you start to take photographs?
I first started taking pictures in high school, mostly friends and on fun occasions. Gradually it evolved to carrying a camera on every trip I took, although it was with the intent of capturing a memory not as an artistic pursuit. In the summer of 2010 I received my first DSLR as a gift. I started playing with it and soon realised that it was a medium for creative expression. The intent for doing photography changed at that point from documenting life’s events to expressing my creativity. So, I have been using the camera to express myself for about 2 ½ years now.
This is a very short period of time but your images impressed me. I look forward to seeing the ones you take in 2-3 years’ time. Now, who is your favourite past or present photographer who has inspired you and influenced your photography?
It is not a single body of work that I find inspiring, rather it is multiple photographers, each with certain images that I am able to connect to at a spiritual level. From the masters such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham, and Ruth Bernhard, to modern day wonders like Michael Kenna, Jack Dykinga, Marc Adamus, Fatali, Guy Tal, Michael Frye, Charles Cramer, Andy Mumford, William Neill, and Clark Little. Each of these photographers has one or more images that are truly awe-inspiring to me; images that I look at on a regular basis, with haunting compositions, unique perspectives, and soulful renditions.
This, indeed, is a very long list of superb photographers, whom we all revere. Talking of great photographers, what is your favourite image of all time?
There are several images that have the ability to evoke a strong emotional response in the viewer, the ability to convey volumes in a single frame, depict monumental episodes in history. One such image that will remain with me forever is the picture of the 9 year old ‘Napalm girl’ running naked through the main street of her village after a bomb was dropped on it. It tells a story of brutality, vulnerability, courage and generosity, all in one single capture. The brutality of war, the vulnerability of those who are subjected to it, the courage of the photographers who choose to place themselves directly in the path of danger, purely with the purpose of bringing a story to light for the rest of the world, and the generosity and kindness of the photographer who saved the little girl’s life after he took the picture. The photographer was the one who rushed the girl to the hospital and made sure the surgeons were able to treat her burns right away. He did not know he had the picture until much later. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/d/d4/TrangBang.jpg
Indeed, this is a picture that has been an inspiration to many of us. Most photographers have a moment where everything becomes clear and that moment could change the way we see photography. Have you had such a moment and how did it affect your style?
When I started doing photography seriously, I used to focus on the technical aspects, concentrate on nailing the pictures. The approach to taking a picture was meticulously planned in terms of timing, location, weather, gear etc. However, it was missing an essential component. I went to shoot Horsetail Falls in Yosemite last year. Photographers from all over the world were gathered in their hundreds, all hoping to “nail the picture” of the famous phenomenon of “fire falls”; the setting sun illuminating the rugged rock face of El Capitan, the golden light transforming the water of Horsetail Falls to the colour of molten lava, the spray created by the wind billowing to create the perfect golden horsetail. It would be pure magic if one was lucky and the weather conditions were perfect to produce this phenomenon. As I sat there waiting for hours, I started talking to two photographers. It was their 60th year photographing the falls, and yes, they had seen the phenomenon a few times and had photographed it too. Why, then, are they here, I wondered; they have the picture already. As I talked to them over the course of a few hours it became quite clear to me that their purpose and mine at that point were quite different. They had come to enjoy the experience, irrespective of whether they got a good picture that day or not. I, on the other hand, was there to take home a prized picture. The more I spoke to them, the more clear it became to me how flawed was my attitude and approach. Thanks to them, I came to the profound realisation that it is not the destination that matters, it is the journey. What really matters is that you enjoy the process of getting the picture. If you actually nail the picture, that is just icing on the cake. Instead of chasing a picture, let the picture come to you as you imbibe, observe and experience the immeasurable beauty of nature around you. From that day onwards I started treating photography as a channel for me to commune with nature, and to establish a path to finding my own moments of Zen.
Very interesting and also true. Talking of Zen and emotions, to what degree are your own emotions reflected in your pictures now?
As a photographer I aspire to evoke an emotional response to each of my images. If there is no emotion going into the creation of the images, then how can one expect there to be one evoked in the viewer? The purpose of generating images is to convey the feel for a place, to express what you as a photographer felt when you were standing at that place at that point in time. So yes, every image that I generate is optimised to convey that emotion.
Sometimes you include people or animals in your pictures. What is your theory behind this?
If there are people present when I am photographing a particular location, I try my best to include them as, in my opinion, the story of the connection between man and nature is well worth sharing. Not only does it give perspective to the images, it also adds interesting elements to the composition. The story is strengthened, the drama, perhaps, a bit more enhanced with the introduction of interesting characters.
An interesting point of view. Changing the subject now, can you tell us about your items of gear and why you chose them?
The first DSLR I owned was a Nikon D90 that I received as a gift. In order to use that camera, I bought Nikkor lenses. Once the collection of Nikkor lenses formed, it was only natural that I stick with Nikon and upgrade in a manner that lets me continue to use my lenses. The discussion of nuts and bolts of gear, brand of camera used, Canon v Nikon, which seems to inundate photography forums, holds no interest for me. Personally, I think that once you have a reasonably good camera, the only nut that matters is the one behind the camera.
Currently my gear includes Nikon COOLPIX S800c for scouting locations, Nikon V1 when I have to travel light, and my standard usage bodies, Nikon D90 and D800. The lenses I use most frequently for landscapes are Nikon 14-24mm, Nikon 24-70mm, and Nikon 70-200mm, Nikon 105mm f1.4 for macro, and Nikon 85mm f1.4 for portraits. The Nikon 17-35mm f2.8 is good for use with screw-on filters as opposed to the large hood of the Nikon 14-24mm. The 10mm V1 lens is very useful for street photography as both camera and lens are barely noticeable.
I agree with your sentiments on Canon v Nikon; it is the nut behind the camera that matters. Let’s move on. Like almost every photographer, you must have a favourite image. Tell us a little bit about it, all the details and especially the why.
Personally I do not have a single favourite image. I sincerely believe my best is yet to come. Of the ones I have taken so far, some appeal to me more than others. One of my favourite images is that of the road leading to monument valley. This image was taken in imperfect light, with the harsh glare of sun, of a relatively colourless landscape, and I was not sure I was even generating an image that I could use. However, I knew (before I captured the image in camera) how I intended to process it later in software to depict the image of a journey. There is a lot of satisfaction in generating a remarkable image given conditions that are less than ideal. For someone who is constantly chasing light, the image was an eye opener in understanding that there is an image in every light. It taught me to start looking for ways to turn the mundane to interesting, to be creative with what light was available and working with compositions, rather than constantly trying to take images only in “good light”.
I want to ask you now about the aftermaths. What post processing do your images undergo? Can you give us some details of your basic workflow?
I tend to shoot in RAW and jpeg fine. Almost invariably I process only the RAW images. The jpeg images at this point are like a security blanket. The processing is done using Adobe Photoshop CS5 with a few plug-ins. Exposure, White Balance, Clarity adjustments are made as needed in Adobe Camera Raw. Additional adjustments in Photoshop are tailored specifically for each image. I have found Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masks very useful in saving me time. Sometimes I process specifically with the intent of rendering a scene as close to reality as possible, and at other times enhance images purely with the intent of expressing myself creatively with less emphasis on reality. Often, I process the same picture in 2-3 different ways, then assess how I feel about each version over the course of 2-3 days, and eventually settle on one version that to me best conveys the feel for the place. In essence there is no ‘cookie-cutter’ recipe that I follow; each image is treated separately. In terms of self-discipline, before I take a picture, I try to observe the landscape and envisage what the desired end product is. The most rewarding images are those where I can see the end product clearly before even I press the shutter release and, therefore, enhance everything from acquisition of the image to its post-processing and presentation in realising that creative vision. It is extremely satisfying when you see an image in your head and can then create it and share it with the world with the tools available to you.
Fascinating, I have not thought of processing an image in different ways, just different formats. This leads me to ask if you have gone through any formal training in photography or are you self-taught?
I have not had formal training in terms of pursuing a degree in photography. When I started shooting, I spent a significant portion of my time reading about the basic concepts of photography and how they influenced the creation of a basic image. Once I became comfortable with the technical aspects of photography, I invested a large portion of my time in studying images, trying to understand the compositions, the use of light, emotion behind the generation of the image, and the steps individual photographers take in an attempt to fulfil their individual artistic vision and to connect to the viewer. Then I started shooting obsessively, practising every day, trying to apply the theoretical knowledge to practical situations. There are a few teachers who have been generous with their time and instruction during this learning process, acting as mentors, offering critique, coaching me both in the field and with post processing, and transforming me gradually.
I agree completely with your theory of studying images, hence we have a variety of small essays in the magazine. How do you come up with ideas, and what do you use as inspiration for your images?
The images generated by me for the large part have been taken within a short distance of where I live. Being in Northern California, one has the opportunity to revisit a variety of landscapes, become familiar with them, study the patterns of light and weather, and subsequently generate images that are emotionally satisfying. Having said that, I have enjoyed my share of “destination photography”; getting to beautiful places and photographing them during the golden hour is enjoyable certainly. However, it does not come close to the fulfilment experienced when photographing a place close to your heart, one that you are familiar with, associate with and consider as your corner of the world.
I use light as my inspiration. Being a landscape photographer, every place I go to I try to see what that particular light at that particular time is showcasing. It is hard for me to connect emotionally to a picture without that element of light in the composition. To a large degree, how subsequently I compose the picture is based on what kind of light is available and what best conveys a feel for the place.
Is your love of photography a passion or obsession?
It is sometimes hard for me to know when the line from passion to obsession is crossed. The pursuit of photography is a personal journey filled with happiness every step of the way. Every image acquired, that is, every step of the journey, feels more pleasurable than the last, a sentiment that draws me passionately deeper and deeper into the exhilaration of the art. I do obsess about the quality of my pictures, the planning of my pictures and their execution. However, considering this is not my primary profession, at this point in time, I confess I am obsessively passionate about it. To find beauty in the barren, depict mood in the mundane, and evoke emotion by immersion in images requires a strong love for the art.
It is indeed a very thin line that separates passion from obsession, I agree. Now, when you are on location, you must have a certain method or process in order to find the picture. Can you share it with us?
Like all the masters say, the key to photography seems to lie in observation. So, before I photograph a landscape, I try to spend some time hiking through it. Spending some time at the place, soaking in the atmosphere; relaxing and connecting with nature has become a very enjoyable experience. During my first visit to the place I do minimal photography, perhaps scout out a few sites and shoot a few images with my compact camera, but mostly try to explore and to discover what hidden secrets the place has. Once I am somewhat familiar with the place and feel connected, I begin to chart out where I want to shoot from, potential compositions, timing for quality of light etc. Since every picture is a story without words, prior to pushing the shutter release button I ask myself what this story is about. Who/what is the protagonist of this story? Based on the answers, I then try to compose the picture in such a way that, hopefully, will draw the viewer into the image and direct the eyes towards the main subject. It goes without saying that the choice for the main subject is determined by where the most interesting light is in a particular scene, or sometimes the strongest pattern, the most drama, or the most calm.
It is always good to hear photographers talking about light, drama and emotions. Saying that, have you ever had an awe-inspiring experience that will stay with you for the rest of your photographic life?
One of the best things about photography is that it provides you with the motivation and the opportunity to witness things that otherwise you may never really see. As a child I often marvelled at the colours of the sunset, noticed the ripples formed by the raindrops in puddles, the swishing of the coconut trees to the ocean breezes, the vibrancy of a butterfly’s wings and so on. Gradually childhood recedes and with it diminishes the ability to marvel and appreciate the beauty of all that is around us. As we get caught up in our day to day chores, we become immune to the beauty around us and succumb to visual anaesthesia. It was not until I started doing photography earnestly, that I began again to observe and become excited about the hues of the sunset, the kaleidoscope of the rainbow or the vibrancy of the butterfly. With the observation comes the realisation of the wonder of it all. In short, the habit of observation that becomes second nature to a photographer makes it possible for one to be in the present and progress from one awe- inspiring moment to another.
A very poetic way to put it. Talking of locations, do you have a favourite location and why is it your favourite? Will you share it with us?
There are two places that have deep emotional attachment for me. The first is my hometown of Hyderabad, India. Having grown up to the sights and smells of the colourful riot that is Hyderabad, there remains a deep longing to visit, to photograph, to reconnect, and to relive the precious moments. The second is where I belong now, in Northern California. Sorry for the cliché, but home is where the heart is. Where else can we experience the joy of pursuing our art than in the places that are closest to our heart?
Continuing on the topic of locations, we all have a dream location that we want to visit before we are too old. What is your dream location and why?
This is an interesting question. Considering I have not seen a large portion of the world, honestly I cannot say I have a single dream location. There are so many places that interest me as a photographer and as a person. Currently I am in the process of planning a trip to Ladakh this summer. This is one of the places where I hope to go trekking off the beaten path and photograph the majestic landscapes. East Africa, South America and New Zealand are additional dream destinations.
You mention New Zealand: this is one of the countries I long to visit and hope to be able to do so at some point in my life. My next question is if you could turn back the time, what advice would you give to a younger you about photography?
As a beginner in photography I made a ton of mistakes. However, I learnt from each of those mistakes. Some were very painful to go through, but at the same time, perhaps I learnt the most from them. So I have no regrets for events that have occurred in this journey; I accept the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. As long as my next picture is equal to or better than my last, the journey is beautiful irrespective of the twists and turns. My advice to the younger Sapna would be to invest more time in improving the art and less time in social networking.
If you had to choose a different genre in photography besides landscapes and nature, what would you choose?
Being a people person, and one who tends to talk a lot, I love to shoot portraits. Having a camera in hand makes it easier to approach total strangers with a smile. The majority of the time people are happy to have their pictures taken. Having a large extended family and circle of friends, there are plenty of opportunities for me to take portraits. I sincerely hope to travel through India some day and shoot portraits of people on the street, in the melas (fairs), working in the fields, during festivals, classical dancers, all of the drama within the human landscape. I do not wish to take portraits of famous people. Rather I wish to take pictures of people no-one knows, outside of their little circle, and show how truly extraordinary they are. The joy of being able to reach out, take somebody’s picture, share it with them and bring a smile to their face is as rewarding as the quiet moments spent in silent introspection in a peaceful landscape.
How do you see the future?
Considering the extremely short time that I have been pursuing photography, my journey has just begun. My hope is to improve in this art medium, and use it to benefit others. The joy experienced in witnessing the beauty of nature and being able to incorporate a small part of it within oneself is immeasurable and a reward in itself. To stand at a point in space and time and have the ability to envisage what the final image will look like is what I aspire for. To realise how the story will end by just looking at the cover page because you as the author will write the story within. I sincerely hope to see the images improve, generate sales, and use the proceeds to help others see what I see. The website SapnaReddy.com will be launched shortly. I am in the process of collaborating with the Sankara Eye Foundation which sponsors free eye surgeries for the poor in India. If with the sales of my pictures, I am able to contribute to this worthy cause, I should consider myself as infinitely fortunate.
My final question is what advice would you give to our readers?
Enjoy the journey, one frame at a time and remember life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.
Read this article, and many more, in High Definition, inside Issue 26 of Landscape Photography Magazine.