Passion Passport got to sit down with acclaimed fine art, landscape and travel photographer Conor MacNeill and pick his brain about how he shoots and post processes his amazing images.
1) Tell us a little about how you got started and why you chose travel & landscape photography as your main shooting genre.
I got started in photography by way of avoiding getting bored. I had bad wanderlust and wanted to start travelling the world, but was tired of waiting on friends to get their acts together. I, decided that I’d go off and travel solo; but then I began to fear that I might get bored on my own. I bought a cheap DSLR online to see if that would keep me occupied on what I hoped would be my forthcoming trips.
When I first started shooting, I would photograph anything and everything. I did portraits, architecture, photojournalism, you name it! After a while, I found that I was deriving most pleasure from not only shooting landscape images, but also looking at the landscape work of others.
With my new-found love of travel, I started exploring the globe, trying to find new landscapes to capture.
2) What type of gear do you use to capture your images (phone/dslr etc.) and what are some of your favorite apps to post process & edit with?
I often split my shooting between my phone and DSLR, as I enjoy working with both. When it comes to mobile shooting, I find my iPhone is invaluable. Especially with the latest incarnations, it’s got a fantastic camera. Sure, it can’t do the incredible things that modern DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can, but for a phone, in my opinion, it does an outstanding job.
If I take a photo on my iPhone, then I’ll edit it on my iPhone. I use a variety of apps, but my main workhorses are Snapseed, Darkroom and SKRWT. Although not apps, I also use Moment Lenses, especially the wide-angle, to help get me the shots that I want.
When it comes to more professional shots, I use a Nikon D810. This, coupled with their 14-24mm ultra wide-angle lens, is my favourite combo for landscape photography. After shooting with this gear, Iuse Adobe Lightroom to get the photos looking part of the way to how I want them, then finish them off with Photoshop.
When it comes to the amount of time I spend post-processing, it can be 5-10 mins for an iPhone shot and 30 mins to 3 hours for a DSLR shot. I try to find a balance – I want my photos to look as good as they can, but I also want to make sure that I don’t go overboard with the processing. My goal is always to try and recreate what I’ve seen with my own eyes.
3) What are some of the key things you keep in mind when shooting landscapes: lighting, time of day, shadows vs. highlights, distortion?
The maxim I always tell people is that good landscape photography is simply getting to the right place at the right time. Sometimes this is luck and sometimes it’s a lot of hard work and scouting.
I always try and shoot around sunrise and sunset. This gives me many more lighting opportunities than during the day. I get to shoot the soft, warm light of the golden hours, or capture the magnificent hues of the blue hours. I also do a lot of astrophotography, so the darkness also gives me plenty of scope to shoot.
With modern sensors, I just need to expose for the highlights and then I can bring the shadows up in post-processing. It’s much harder to recover blown out highlights.
I never have too many problems with distortion, as my lens is pretty great and the Adobe software is fantastic at correcting for this.
4) How much of the time do you do you rely on post to fix any of the aforementioned issues?
I try and get as much done in-camera as possible. Some things are nearly impossible to fix or just require too much effort. I aim to get the best shot to start with and then use post-processing to enhance it. In thinking this way, the job is actually easier, and if I decide to enter photography competitions, the images often require minimal processing.
When I post-process my images, I spend most of the time trying to get the colours and contrast looking right. I also fous on removing any blemishes, denoising and sharpening.
5) What are 3 of the most useful tools you use when post processing images, either(in photoshop or in any other app?
One of my favourite tools / plugins in Photoshop is Color Efex from NIK Software. In fact, this software bundle has just been made free by Google, so if you have Photoshop, I highly recommend you download it and try it out! It has hundreds of different features, but I narrowed them down to my top 7 and use them sublty in every photo, only ever making small changes.
The people who made this software also made Snapseed, which I mentioned that I use to process photos on my iPhone. It has an amazing little tool called Selective Adjust which allows me to target specific areas on my image and alter the brightness, contrast and saturation.
A little more on the technical side of things are luminosity masks. These allow me to select areas of my images based on their brightness. This is invaluable when blending different exposures together if you have an image that with extreme highlights and shadows.
6) When shooting in low light situations, what are some tips to get the best quality images? I’m thinking of your shots of the Northern Lights, or of nighttime sky images. How do you post process those?
A lot of people say that type of gear doesn’t matter in photography; it’s how you use it. Well, when it comes to low-light photography, gear is actually pretty important!
If your sensor has great performance at high-ISOs, the cleaner and crisper your images will turn out. The less noise that the exposure generates, the easier a job you’ll have in Photoshop. Having a fast lens, such as an f/2.8 or quicker, will mean you can let more light in thereby reducing the ISO.
Putting technology aside, one of the best things you can do when wanting to shoot the northern lights or Milky Way is to scout the area during the day. I arrived really late at a location in Africa and the sun had already set. The upside: I could already see the Milky Way. The downside: it was just about the only thing I could see. It took me endless test shots to figure out where I was and what might make a good foreground.
When post-processing low-light images, the biggest culprit is noise – this is the grain that appears when you have a super-high ISO. There are many denoising plugins that you can get for Photoshop and the one I use is called Noiseware. I also spend a bit of time trying to get the colour right, as this can often look odd in night-time images.
7) What are some of the things you keep in mind when framing a shot and choosing your subject matter?
I think composition can be quite subjective and even if you have a natural talent, it can take a while for you to naturally see something.
When choosing my shots, I always shoot a number of different composition and then choose the best one. Sometimes I see something I think might work well, shoot it, and then find that it looks terrible. I delete those shots so that people think I’m a compositional genius.
I think that in landscape photography, it’s important to have an interesting foreground as well as background. It’s great having majestic mountains in the distance, but without something in the foreground to guide your eye, the can get lost in the image.
8) Of all the landscapes you’ve photographed, which have been some of your favorites?
It’s really hard to narrow down my favourite places, as I’ve been lucky enough to travel to some amazing locations. If I had to choose 3, I would say:
Bagan, Burma (Myanmar) is a place I had wanted to travel to for many years. I decided to go before it became too flooded with tourists, and hoped to get a decent shot of the sunset over the temples that are strewn across this plain. Thankfully, I was able to.! I had researched the area beforehand and knew that the sun would set behind the larger Pagoda. What I didn’t know was that as the sun dipped behind it, its rays would spread out around it like a scene from a movie. Everyone around me let out an audible gasp at that moment.
Petra was always a mystical place that had piqued my photographic interest. It’s not too far from my base in London, so after a 4-hour flight and a half-day of driving, I was there. I managed to get in ahead of the tourists after jogging all the way there down the Siq; the gigantic slot canyon entrance.
After seeing photos of Deadvlei a few years ago, I knew it was a dream location. I had three shooting spots in mind and flew all the way to southern Africa to check them out. The dead trees in this shot are found in an old salt marsh in the heart of a desert national park. After entering the gates, it takes an hour drive followed by a 40 minute hike over giant sand dunes to reach them. When I first caught a glimpse of this natural wonder, it took takes my breath away.
Conor MacNeill is a fine-art, travel and destination photographer. His photography takes him all around the globe where he is renowned for his landscapes, cityscapes and astrophotography. His passion for travel has lead him to over 50 countries so far, with this list ever-increasing. He not only visits the main destinations and puts his unique photographic twist on things, but also manages to capture the essence of a country by visiting the paths less-travelled.
If you want to be able to shoot and edit like him, why not sign up for one of his workshops! The next one is in the Faroe Islands on the 14-21 May.