Ken Koskela - USA
1. Ken, you traveled a lot of countries in your life. Please tell us something about it. Did you always enjoy traveling or is it exhausting sometimes, particularly as a family man? Is there any region in the world that you love most?
It was during college that I began a fascination with experiencing other cultures and visiting faraway places. I remember looking through travel brochures and magazines with pictures from around the world and dreaming of going to each and every place someday. Naturally, my career interests gravitated towards international work. I am very fortunate and grateful that I later landed on a career that has taken me around the world during the past 24 years. I’ve been to about 90 or 100 countries and have spent about 25% of my total days traveling overseas, but always living in the United States. For me, 20-25% travel is about the right balance. When I get above that, I feel like I am gone too long. Although I still enjoy being overseas, I am always happy to get back home.
As for a favorite region, that’s a tough one for me as I have enjoyed the variety and appreciate each place I visit. I think Eastern Europe and Russia back in the mid-1990’s was a fun and exciting time to be in that part of the world. From a photography standpoint, I really like going to locations that I would consider majestic and “otherworldly”, such as Patagonia, Norway, and the Canadian Rockies.
2. When did you realize your love for landscape photography?
For many landscape photographers, their photography is an extension of their love for nature. Although I have always enjoyed the outdoors, I didn’t really grow up as an outdoors person. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and, although I liked the idea of being in nature, it didn’t really happen all that much. So, when I first became interested in photography, it wasn’t necessarily with landscape in mind. Soon, however, amazing landscape photographs made the biggest impression on me and my list of places that I had to photograph began to grow.
Honestly, at first it was more about the photography than the adventure. But, that changed quickly and I became hooked on experiencing and photographing beautiful landscape locations. I really enjoy the whole adventure of it. For me, there is nothing quite like being on your own or with a friend in an amazing location and capturing it with your camera. Even if the weather does not cooperate enough to go home with a great picture, I still love it.
3. Please tell us how it feels when you come to a remote place in the wilderness. How do you connect yourself to this place for being able to make a profound shot?
My first thought and feeling upon arrival is almost always a real sense of appreciation and gratitude for being able to experience the place I am in. I don’t take that lightly. It is also definitely a spiritual connection for me, as I am convinced the world was created by God. So, this aspect of my faith really increases my connection to nature.
However, the photographer side of me kicks in too, and so there is a bit of pressure to capture the scene, along with the enjoyment of being there. For many photographers, including myself, there can be even more enjoyment AFTER we have experienced a beautiful scene and are celebrating having successfully captured it.
4. You`re not only a very talented landscape photographer but also love shooting portraits. Not many photographers are successful in doing both. Do you benefit from your landscape photography in any way when you work with people. Or is it a completely different challenge?
Thank you for that comment. I started with portraits as a result of being in some fascinating locations, such as rural China, where you have these fantastic portrait subjects… combined with my admiration for some of the compelling portrait work out there, particularly from Asia. But, I also wanted to be somewhat focused as a photographer. So, I have settled on landscapes and environmental portraits as my two main areas. I know that is a strange combination. But I have enjoyed shooting both and would not want to give either one up in order to be more focused.
As to whether my portrait photography benefits in some way from my landscape work, I would say that the two types of photography present completely different challenges. With portraits, it is about getting my lighting right, as well as getting a pose out of my subject that draws the viewer into the scene. My portrait workflow is also quite different from my landscape workflow. The portrait processing techniques I use would wreck my landscape pictures. So, apart from general photography and processing skills that I’ve developed while shooting landscapes, there has not been a lot of real benefit for my portrait work.
5. You took portrait pictures in remote regions of China and Colombia. How did you get in touch with those interesting and charismatic people? Doesn`t the language barrier stop being successful in achieving the decisive moment?
I rely heavily on local connections. A local person who speaks the language and can effectively have a conversation beforehand leads to a much greater likelihood of getting good portraits. This was definitely made clear in China. My local guide and I would walk into villages and inquire as to where some of the older people in the village lived. Soon, my guide was walking into the houses of complete strangers without knocking on the door, calling out to alert them that we were there, and then proposing a short portrait session in their homes. I would never have even thought to try this.
6. You made several experiences with photography over the years. You`ve been participant of a workshop as well as co-leader. You made solo trips and traveled with friends. How has your connection to your photograhic passion changed through the years?
It has evolved significantly. It started with me trying to learn as much as possible as fast as possible. So, I watched a lot of processing videos and participated in a few photo tours. I am comfortable traveling overseas, so it was pretty natural for me to quickly move into solo trips. But, I enjoy traveling with a friend or two more than by myself and so I quickly found a few photographer friends that I began to travel with more regularly.
All of this time, I had this idea in my head that the end goal was to become a full-time photographer, focusing on leading photo tours. After leading or co-leading a number of these during the past 14-15 months, I’ve decided to take a step back and lead a smaller number of tours and keep photography as a part-time source of income, but a full-time passion. So, the end-goal has changed for me and is now more focused on enjoying photography.
7. What do you think about processing? Is it an important part of the artistic approach? Do you need more comprehensive knowledge for processing landscape or portrait pictures?
For me, I have as much fun on the processing side as I do with shooting. There is always something new to learn and experiment with in image processing, so it keeps you busy when not out photographing. And I certainly consider it to be part of the artistic process. As we all know, RAW files can look pretty terrible and can make a beautiful scene look fairly dull and lifeless unless it is processed.
One observation is that, for my tastes, the difference between most processed images and those that are exceptionally well-processed is very high in terms of the level of skill and investment of time required. With the ease of using Lightroom and some common Photoshop techniques, as well as the availability of filters, you can relatively quickly get an image looking pretty good. But, the people who really stand out in their processing are highly skilled. Even after learning some of their techniques, it is not easy to get an image looking as good as theirs.
8. Who`s your biggest source of inspiration? Who`s your most favorite photographer alive?
Marc Adamus. There are a number of other photographers that I really like and respect, but there is something unique about Marc’s imagery. For me, he is the “gold standard” and is on the cutting edge of things. I did participate in one of his workshops years ago and was amazed at his depth of knowledge. He really is a brilliant person. I’ve been photographing for years now but could still benefit by doing a return trip with him, which I hope to do at some point.
9. How important is creativity for yourself or for people in general?
For me, “creativity” is about trying new things, breaking the rules, and doing things your own way. Again, Marc Adamus comes to mind as someone with these characteristics… he does photography and post-processing his own way and is continually experimenting.
Although creativity is important, it is not enough. One personal observation that I’ve made is that the really good photographers seem to have a very high level of intellect… they are very smart people. I think it is possible to consistently create great images without necessarily being creative, but it is the people that have both this high level of intellect combined with creativity that seem to stand out above the rest, both in composing and in processing.
10. Final Question: This project is called "Vision and life". What do the terms "vision" and "life" mean for you, Ken?
For me, “vision” is about being able to see ahead of time what you want the end result to be. This could be a vision for a single image, a portfolio, or where you want to be as a photographer five years from now. From the standpoint of a single image, having a vision in mind of the final product can certainly help guide your shooting and processing and put you in the drivers seat, rather than just following your “standard procedure”. I can easily get stuck following my standard procedure, especially with processing.
The term “life” can be looked at different ways. When I think of a person who has “life”, I think of someone who enjoys life in a way that is visible and contagious to others. This is how I want to approach photography… with enjoyment and appreciation for being able to get outdoors in beautiful places and capture them with my camera.