Interview with a Pro – Blake Verdoorn

Canadian Lake Small Canadian Lake – Blake Verdoorn

If you saw our recent LandscapePro 2 tutorial, you’ll already be aware of the work of up-and-coming landscape photographer, Blake Verdoorn.

At only 23 years old, his work has already been published by National Geographic Travel, Photographer’s Forum, and many more. We were thrilled to get an interview with Blake to learn more about his experiences and ambitions…

How old were you when you got into photography?

I picked up my first camera about 3 years ago when I traveled to Alaska with my Grandfather. My parents wanted me to bring a camera along so I could document the trip. At the time, I thought nothing of it. Nor did I have any experience or knowledge of photography. I remember coming home and really being taken back by the images I had captured. Again, I knew nothing about composition, DoF, etc., but something about those images resonated with me. They still do. Fast-forward a year, I decided to buy my first camera. I was 21. I’m 23 now and it has been one heck a ride since that decision.

What inspired you to start?

I have always had a deep passion for the outdoors. Living in Dallas, Texas, it’s always incredibly special to get the opportunity to venture out and experience this beautiful world. After come back from Alaska, looking through the images from the trip, something clicked. I remember sifting through landscape images from professional photographers after that trip thinking, “I want to be able to do that. I want to bring home stunning photographs like this”. So I began dedicating all of my time to learning. At the time, no one close to me was really understanding why or what I was doing. I don’t come from a necessarily artistic family, so to branch off and do something unique and different had friends and family questioning. They still are. I don’t think they’ll ever stop. I question myself too. It’s good. I reminds me that what I’m doing matters.

Big Bend SmallBig Bend River, Texas – Blake Verdoorn

You’ve traveled to some really amazing places and met people from different cultures, what has been your most inspiring experience so far?

I’ve got two really great experiences that I’ll never forget. In 2013, I had the opportunity to backpack Europe (I don’t have any photos from that trip because my camera was stolen). During that trip we met an Australian named Sam. She was staying at the same hostel in San Sebastian, Spain. Whenever we leave for these big trips, about to meet people from all over the world, you develop this idea that these people are somehow vastly different from you because they grew up on the other side of the world. I remember going to dinner with her and the group of friends I was with and talking, getting to know each other. It was there that I realized she was no different than us. We had the same stories of love, hurt, triumph, sadness, loneliness, fears etc. We grew up listening to the same music, playing the same sports and going through similar motions as kids and students. So here five guys were, from Dallas, Texas, laughing and sharing about the complexities of life with a girl from Sydney, Australia, in San Sebastian, Spain. It was an incredibly beautiful and humanizing experience.

Secondly, was about a year ago when I was photographing in New Zealand. My cousin and I had taken a gondola to the top of a mountain in Queenstown to photograph the sunset. Up top was another group of photographers doing the same thing. Max and Sam (different Sam) were both from Germany, touring the South Island on a photo expedition. Similar to Spain, we began talking and getting to know each other. This time, it was much more about the photography community. We were talking gear, styles, techniques, software; we talked about the frustrations and inspirations of photography, but mostly about the joy it brings us in our lives. Again, it made the world feel very small. The same idea in Spain, that people, with seemingly vast differences, can come together so quickly over shared passions and a love for beautiful images. The world of photography is massive, but instances like this make you feel like the community is much tighter knit than we think it is.

In meeting with people from all around the world and hearing their stories about upbringings,  their dreams, fears, and emotions, I’ve found that we are all much more similar than we thought we are—sometimes scarily similar. If you just take the time to get to know someone, you’ll find that everyone is the same.

Which image are you most proud of? Which means the most to you?

I’m most proud of a shot that I took when hiking through Glacier National Park in Montana. This particular shot has won a couple awards and has been published in a couple of photography books. We had decided to do a hike called Scenic Point. It was a high-elevation hike up the mountains that overlooks Two Medicine Lake. We knew we didn’t have a lot of time so we hurried to the peak. The sun began to set on our way down and we were met with a breathtaking orange and red sky that was reflecting off the lake way below us. It was an absolutely stunning view.

Glacier NP SmallTwo Medicine Lake – Blake Verdoorn

An image that I took of my friends outside of Monument Valley means the most to me, simply because it captures my friends so well. We wanted to remake the scene from Forrest Gump when he is running and finally decides to turn around. That scene was filmed at mile-marker 13 driving towards Monument Valley from Utah. So we got out of our cars, pitched our most bearded, Tom-Hanks-esque, friend to play Forrest and the rest of the friends were his herd of followers. It’s significance is a deeply personal one. It’s a great reminder of those guys, how much they mean to me, and the fun we have had together travelling the world.

What would you say is the hardest part of landscape photography?
What is the greatest reward?

Landscape photography, like any genre of photography really, is its own monster. There are so many things that are specific to landscape photography that don’t really have to do with any other genre. Lens selection, composition, light type and availability, etc. Sometimes it gets a bad reputation because anyone can travel to Alaska or Yosemite and take a pretty picture. There is no denying that one. However, you can always tell the difference between someone who takes a picture of Yosemite Valley and someone who photographs Yosemite Valley. The hardest part specifically is really just the getting there. More often than not, you have to totally beat yourself up to get a shot. Whether that is a sunrise you don’t want to wake up for, or a hike that is a little too difficult (especially with 10 extra pounds of photo equipment). What really great landscape photography takes is a whole bunch of extra time. A lot of these professional landscape photographers will wait for hours for the right light and the right conditions. Most of the time, I don’t have that kind of time. So it requires much more inventive ways to get great shots. The second hardest part is simply the money. Landscape photography (with exception) has little money to be made. Unfortunately, that is just the truth. If you want to make a living off of landscape (which I don’t), good luck and let me know how you did it because I’m still trying to find out.

The greatest reward is when you just beat yourself up to get to where you want to be, and you look at that tiny little screen on the back of your camera and you think, “yes”. There is always this feeling of certainty once you get the shot. With all the unknowns that lead up to getting the shot, it’s great to be able to look at your result and think, “wow, this is gorgeous”. I always make sure to get my shot in camera, then take a mental shot for the memory. I always hate when I return home and realize I was so busy shooting I forgot to look at my subject with my actual eyes…

It isn’t always a “yes, this is the shot” type moment though. I have plenty of shots where I went home thinking I didn’t have anything only to find a image that is breathtaking. Those are equally as rewarding. They are like little surprises just waiting to be unveiled.

You photograph landscapes but also portraits and wedding photography, what different approaches do you have to take to these different genres?

The biggest difference is lens selection. I would never shoot a landscape with a 35 or 50 mm f/1.4 lens. I suppose you could. And you would probably get great results. But it’s just not practical. My only overlap in lens selection is the 70-200. I love shooting landscapes at 200mm. When you compose it right, you get this dramatic compression that makes mountains tower over you foreground. To me, that is so much more majestic than shrimpy little mountains in the background of a wide-angle shot.

Mountain Tops - RMNP smallRocky Mountain National Park – Blake Verdoorn

The other difference is paying attention to light. The way I look at light is significantly different in weddings and portrait than in landscapes. When I’m photographing people my only thought is, “find soft light”. When shooting landscape, there isn’t much you can do to control your subject and the light that shines upon it. Obviously changing the time of day changes the light on a mountain. But if I’m hiking and shooting at the same time and limited by my time in a park, my only control is how I compose. So I try and find interesting foregrounds, natural frames, leading lines, etc. to dominate the image rather than beautiful light. If I have the chance to photography a landscape in beautiful light, then great! The perfect storm! But like I said, that isn’t always the case though. My three main landscape lenses are: 24-120 f/4, 70-200 f/2.8, and 15-30 f/2.8

If you could travel to anywhere in the world for a photo-shoot, where would you go?

As cliché as it sounds (and I hate that it’s even cliché), it’s Iceland. I have been trying to get there for four years now and have yet to have the opportunity. It’s driving me crazy. There is some much wild, untamed and forceful beauty there. It’s somewhat of a bummer that it is kinda photographed out. But that doesn’t deter me. I don’t care.

I would love to go back to Africa for a safari. I was there when I was a child and remember being blown away by a photographer’s images of the animals that we were getting to see. I’d love to go back with a monster lens and have a blast shooting those other-wordly animals.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?

I am getting ready to go to graduate school to study Journalism and Advertising. I really hope to get more into videography and filmmaking and start shooting documentary.

The greatest think that I am lacking right now is a cause. I shoot because I enjoy shooting. There is nothing wrong with that, but I want my images to stand for something. I want people to see my work and think, “that is more than just a pretty picture that’s the voice of (insert cause here)”. So that’s what I hope. I feel like I have “found my calling” in photography, but I need to find my calling within my calling if you will.

I hope to be running a production company one day. I think it will happen. I just need to be patient. I have plenty of time. I hope to be married, probably have kids. Own a house. Make more money than what I do now. Have some resemblance of a stable life. I need to add that in-case my family reads this.

If you could give one piece of advice to someone looking to start photographing landscapes, what would it be?

Invest in good equipment. Good equipment and good lenses make a big difference. While I am a proponent of “it’s not the camera, it’s the camera-man”, there is also “it’s kinda also about the camera”. I will get better results with some primo glass on a full-frame camera than if I shoot on a entry-level kit lens and crop sensor (that being said, my favorite shots were shot on a kit lens, entry level camera, so I just debunked my own point).

Shoot all the time. Even it’s it’s not landscape. The reason I started shooting weddings and portraits was because I loved to shoot but couldn’t shoot landscape all the time. So I filled my time with other stuff I could shoot. The more you shoot the better you’ll get. Just like everything else in life.

Don’t expect to make any money off of landscape shots. I have yet to make a dime off of any of my landscapes. There are people all over the world making a living off of landscapes but it’s really hard and really competitive. So if you love traveling and love photographing, than make it a personal quest to get better. Who knows where it will lead you.

Lastly, have fun. If you’re beating yourself up because your images aren’t as good as professionals, than you take the fun out of it. Use professionals as inspiration and motivation to get better, but don’t get down because your images don’t look like theirs.

Thank you Blake for taking the time to talk to us. You can follow Blake’s adventures and see more of his work on his website and via Unsplash.

Share This!