Interview – Ben Coffman

  1. When did you know you wanted to be a photographer?

I never really wanted to be a photographer. I’ve always wanted to be a writer or an adventurer (I guess I’m attracted to careers with absent or irregular paychecks). At first, the camera was just a way to document my adventures, but little by little the documentation started to become more important to me than both the adventure itself and the writing afterward.

I had one or two toy-like film cameras as a kid, but my dad taught me the fundamentals of the SLR when I was in high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I joined the digital revolution in 2003 when I purchased the first-generation Canon Digital Rebel. But it wasn’t until 2011 that I began to really work at becoming a better photographer.

  1. What kind of adventures?  What reasons or push is there in people to share our adventures with others?

I’m really into exploring, hiking, mountain biking, and traveling. I think we’ve all done something crazy or seen something beautiful like an insane sunset or a particularly starry night sky and been totally incapable of capturing that moment outside of just living it and doing our best to remember it accurately. If you’re lucky, you shared it with one or two other people, and maybe a couple of times a year you can drink some beers and reminisce about the experience. If you’re not lucky, those memories, even the treasured ones, warp and deteriorate over time, and they’re eventually relegated to some part of your brain that doesn’t see a lot of action. Go Pros (the little HD cameras) and camera phones have done some great things as far as preserving personal moments, but they can’t come close to capturing the beauty of the night sky with high ISO and low noise  like a digital SLR can. That’s where the impetus came for learning night-sky photography – being able to actually show people what you’re talking about when I tell them about the camping trip last weekend and the billions of stars in the sky.

  1. Do you have any formal training? What were the most important lessons learned?

I actually took a photography class on the way to an undergraduate degree in journalism, but I didn’t learn much. I basically shot twenty or so rolls of film, turned in a handful of terrible pictures per week, and got a B+. I feel like I’ve done a lot of incremental learning from a number of sources over many years. Personally, the most important lesson I’ve learned in my photography journey is that there is always something new to learn and that the journey itself never ends. I take photos every day, and every day I strive to get better at my craft, even if it’s the tiniest of improvements.

My most dramatic improvements in photography came when I really got into night photography. It changed the way I looked at photographs, it energized my interest in photography as a means of artistic communication, and I had to actively deconstruct the photograph in order to understand how it was made. It was a puzzle, and I got kind of excited about solving the riddle and making those images myself.

  1. Do you have or have you had a mentor?

I’ve had friends that have offered me encouragement, advice, and a whole lot of technical knowledge. My good friend Buck Christensen (http://www.buckstopphoto.com) became very passionate about photography years ago, and his enthusiasm and his work ethic was infectious. He made me want to be a better photographer. He’s been a great source of knowledge along the way. I also read a lot of books, websites, and articles, but just asking a question point-blank to someone more knowledgeable can be invaluable.

  1. How beneficial has a mentor or peers been to your growth personally and as a photographer?

As far as photography goes, I think it’s important to have photographer friends whose opinions you value and who aren’t motivated by insecurity or some other negative trait. All artists can probably benefit from a knowledgeable, brutally honest friend who doesn’t mind pointing out areas where you can improve.

  1. What equipment, cameras, lens, body, do you use?

I currently use a Canon 6D body. My star photography is primarily done with a Rokinon 14mm, although I’ve used other focal lengths in the past. I always shoot with a tripod. For night photography, I have a huge number of flashlights, a flash, a portable reflector, and other gadgets and gear. Most of my long-exposure landscape work is done with a Canon 17-40L lens, and I’m a big fan of using 10-stop filters to create daytime long exposures. I’ve used and really like B+W’s filters from Schneider Optics for this purpose.

  1. Of all the places you have photographed, which is your favorite?

I really enjoy shooting at Crater Lake National Park. It has these really old, dramatic trees around the shoreline and is known for some fantastic sunsets. It’s a really beautiful national park, and I’m not sure that any of my photos have actually done it justice.

  1. Can you please give a synopsis of your process of taking a photo, from the “snap” to the finished image?

I’m often running late and traveling in the dark to a location I’ve never been to before. I’m sweating. My heart is palpitating because the night-sky conditions are good and I know that I have an opportunity to capture some great stuff. Either that or I’m just outright scared because some owl, deer, fox, or skunk just jumped out of the brush a few feet away from me. Or I’m trespassing. Or freezing. I set up efficiently and quietly, using minimal flashlight and try hard to stay organized and focused on the task at hand. I look for stray lights or objects in the composition and I try to crop them in-camera. I check my settings and snap the photo with a remote.

I review the image on my LCD: Is it sharp? How’s the composition? Is there anything I need to account for that I didn’t see before? I then decide if I need to light the foreground. I recompose and try again. And again, and again. Two or three hours later, I’m usually ready to move on. My goal is for one good image.

Post-processing can take quite a while. I process most of the image quickly, but it’s the lingering details that can take a long time. I’ve learned to really pore over the image, examine it at 100 percent, and clean it up so that hopefully someday I can make a really nice print with it. I’m constantly fighting noise and trying to decide how much to remove and how much to leave, and whether or not noise reduction renders the photo less sharp.

  1. Do you plan to photograph other subjects in additional to landscapes?  What would that be and why?

My portrait photography skills are a work in progress, but that’s an area in which I’ve been focusing recently. But, honestly, I love landscape photography, and I really like documenting places and times that may not occur again. When comet PANSTARRS buzzed by the Earth in March 2013, I saw tons of beautiful photos from dozens of photographers worldwide who managed to artfully capture the comet’s passing. I think that’s just fantastic as it will be thousands of years before that comet returns to Earth.

The Milky Way itself is an endangered object in some parts of the world in which light pollution has obscured it from view as our cities are growing these giant domes of light pollution overhead because everyone feels safer with a halogen spotlight on all night in their driveway. There’s a good chance that I and other night-sky photographers are capturing something that may not be able to be captured in the same way in ten years.

  1. How has social media helped/hurt sharing of your work and marketing?

I think most photographers would agree that the age of the Internet, including social media, has been both a curse and a blessing. On one hand, I’m able to reach an audience in a visual way that was impossible twenty years ago. On the other hand, we live in a world in which people steal photos and try to claim them as their own, or, more benignly, they spend eight hours a day staring at their computer monitor so that having a beautiful print hanging on the wall of their living room isn’t nearly as important to them as a free beautiful image for their desktop wallpaper. With that said, I definitely fall more toward the “love” side of social media, and I engage in it quite frequently.

  1. Which social media has been the most beneficial to you, besides having a website?

From a visual arts standpoint, I think that Google+ is really nice. Photos look great on there, and it’s easy to scroll through an artist’s body of work. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t caught on the way Facebook has. Facebook’s been pretty beneficial as I’ve gotten a lot of traction on there and have made some really great contacts, whereas growth with other social media platforms has been slower.

  1. Your take on the craft of photography is refreshing as your passion is always apparent and seems to drive everything you do, almost your entire existence.  It’s not about fame or fortune.  It’s about the image, the process, and sharing with others.   Do you offer classes, or teach/mentor other aspiring photographers?

I always talk about “my photography journey,” because the learning never ends. The whole thing is a process. For me it will always be about improving, trying new things, and the rush I get when everything’s going right when I’m taking photos. I can’t discount that part of it—I actually get an adrenaline rush from photography. The first time I saw the aurora borealis while taking photos my heart pounded for hours. It’s still very exciting to me.

As far as teaching goes, I just started offering small-group workshops in the Portland area. I’m really excited about doing these workshops, and I’ve spent A LOT of time getting my curriculum put together. I haven’t done a lot of mentoring—in general, I don’t like to give unsolicited advice or criticism. But I’ve learned a lot on this journey so far, and I’m excited about blabbering on for hours about my workflow to photographers who actually want to hear me talk.

  1. Any closing thoughts or advice for aspiring photographers?

This is probably really generic advice, and it’s basically advice I give myself every day – work according to your own vision. Try to communicate something with your art, let it speak for you. And do it for yourself first and foremost.