Interview with landscape photographer Matt Payne

Matt Payne is a landscape photographer based in Durango, Colorado.

Matt Payne

Tell Us About Your Background

My name is Matt Payne. I live in the small mountain town of Durango, Colorado.  This is near the Utah/Arizona/New Mexico border in the 4-corners region at the base of the San Juan Mountains. Originally from Colorado Springs, Colorado but lived briefly in Portland, Oregon before returning to the mountains of Colorado.

I grew up climbing mountains in Colorado with my father. Successfully climbing my first peak at age 4 and my first 14,000 ft. peak at age 6. Through mountain climbing, I gained a very deep connection with the mountains. I also gained an appreciation for the aesthetics and beauty found in nature.

When Did You Start Nature and Landscape Photography? 

In 2010, I took up photography while hiking and climbing Colorado’s highest 100 mountains. I completed all of the 14,000+ ft. peaks in Colorado in 2012. In 2019, I completed all of the highest 100 Colorado mountains. These journeys have yielded many of my favorite photographs.

My first real camera was a Sony DSC-828. But I quickly bought a proper DLSR when I learned the limitations of the Sony. I purchased the Nikon D7000 with the 18-105mm kit lens attached.

Since I wanted to delve deeper into landscape and night photography, I then purchased the Tokina 11-16mm lens. I have made some of my favorite images with that combination.

I soon took up night photography and was photographing the Milky Way from high elevation locations in 2011 and 2012. This was well before it was an established art form in photography.

I was heavily influenced by early adopters of mountain night photography such as Ben Canales and David Kingham. As sensor technology advanced quickly beyond 2012, many other photographers also started taking up the craft. It has exploded in popularity since then.

Unfortunately, I was also heavily influenced by the early HDR processing days introduced by Trey Ratcliff. My early photography featured gaudy over-the-top processing which I have toned down significantly since then.

What Do You Feel Are the Core Elements of a Good Landscape Photo?

  • A good landscape photograph must convey an experience to the viewer.  It must transport you to the location and really immerse the viewer in that place.
  • It must tell some sort of story to the viewer.  This story can shift depending on the viewpoint of each viewer. However, it must have that quality to be a really great image.
  • The photograph must have a well-crafted composition. It must eliminate distractions. This leads the viewer through the image in a way that really lends itself to taking in the whole scene. This can be accomplished through good use of dodging and burning as well as a slow approach to composing.
  • The photograph should be an accurate representation of that place.

The true power in landscape photography is to convey the experience of a place, connecting a viewer emotionally and spiritually. It evokes desires to protect and conserve that place and to cherish it for generations to come. A great landscape photograph goes beyond visual impact, which can be easily manufactured. For example through composites, dropping in skies, adding elements that never existed, etc.

Being true to the experience of a place eliminates the need for words like “fake” or “real” for the audience. Various editing techniques are used to accentuate “truth to experience”, without the need to draw definitive lines in the sand.

What Can Landscape Photographers Do to Help Protect Our Environment?

It’s critical that visitors/photographers develop and adhere to a code of ethics that lends itself to the preservation of places. Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.

All nature photographers have probably noticed that a lot of our favorite locations are under attack. Trash and litter adorn the trails. Hordes of photographers and tourists trample locations to death.

Lifestyle photographers and “Instagrammers” use nature as their props to gain followers, attention, glory, money and fame. While these problems may seem separate, many pressures stem from people being drawn to places because of our inspiring photographs.

Most individual photographers have not intentionally contributed to these negative impacts. Still, we have the opportunity to acknowledge that nature photographers have become a significant contributor to these issues. Thus we must be held responsible in addressing these trends in a proactive and positive way.

For about two years, I have been working with a small but mighty group of photographers concerned about these accelerating trends.

As a group, we have contributed to the creation of seven principles called “The Nature First Photography Movement.” We have each committed to following and promoting the practices outlined, as well as encourage our fellow photographers to do the same.

If nature photographers do not take this kind of collective, proactive action:

  • We will continue to see extensive and irreparable damage to our most precious natural places.
  • We will also see a growing number of regulations and restrictions put on photographers as a result.

The “Nature First Movement” will go live on Earth Day, 2019.

Tell Us About About Your Podcast “F-Stop Collaborate and Listen”

In 2010, when I was first starting out as a photographer, I looked to Apple Podcasts for inspiration and education. Soon I found the podcasting platform to be devoid of any quality podcasts dedicated to landscape photography.

In 2017, I decided it would be a fun project to create my own podcasts. They are dedicated to the craft of landscape photography. I have been releasing weekly episodes ever since! I did not have any idea how to create/produce a podcast and have been learning on the fly since then.

The idea of my podcast is simple. I have casual, but in-depth conversations with other international landscape photographers. We talk about the craft and various topics that are of interest to photographers. This includes motivation, psychology, location sharing, ethics, conservation, workshops, post-processing, and more.

We just released a special 100th episode. The episode features 11 photographers in a round-table discussion about the current state of landscape photography.

What Is a Typical Day in the Life of an Adventurer and Photographer?

Most of my trips are

  • either solo adventures; or
  • with 1-2 friends who are not photographers; or
  • with small groups of photographers on an extended trip.

For example, I recently went on an 8-day trip to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona. The trip covered 1,500 miles in my vehicle to take about 1,000 photographs. I was with a small group of 5 other photographers.

Many days involve a lot of travel either on foot (backpacking or hiking) or by vehicle. Most of the time is spent scouting a location or finding a good composition to complement anticipated weather conditions, either in the morning, evening, or late at night.

On trips where I am combining mountaineering with photography, I usually will hike several hours in the dark up a mountain. I will get into position for sunrise from a desirable and photogenic location, all while praying to the weather gods!

What Gear Must You Have with You for a Shoot?

In 2017, I decided to switch to the Sony A7R II full-frame mirrorless system from the Nikon F-mount system. Primarily because a great deal of my photography involves long hikes with camera backpacks into the mountains of Colorado. The Sony mirrorless system has two significant advantages over the Canon or Nikon system (although they too have recently entered the mirrorless market with some success).

First, the equipment is much smaller and easier to pack into a small and lightweight pack. Second, the gear itself weighs significantly less, allowing me to pack lighter and travel further. I even became so obsessed with this comparison that I created an extensive excel spreadsheet and calculation tool to help others plan for trips based on weight.

Depending on the trip, I pack the following lenses :

This combination has proved quite nice and I have enjoyed the flexibility. I have also chosen a very lightweight tripod for my trips – the Feisol Tournament 3442, and have paired it with an equally light Photo Clam Pro Gold II ball head.

For day hikes and car excursions, I have an F-Stop Gear Loka bag with several ICUs. For longer backpacking trips where weight is an issue, I bring my Osprey Exos 48 bag and use an F-Stop Gear ICU to store and carry my lenses. I also use a LowePro 55 AW chest harness bag for easy camera access on long hikes. You can read more about my gear selections on my website.

What Is Your Favourite Lens for a Landscape Image? 

I have recently really enjoyed using telephoto lenses for my landscape photography. I find that a good range between 70 and 400 offers a very versatile focal length, that can be used in a number of creative ways. This includes capturing interesting and unique abstract images or longer views of mountains and valleys below me.

Using a telephoto lens challenges me as a photographer. It makes me find more unique compositions that may not have ever been photographed before, which is an important process for me as a photographer. I have written about this extensively.

What Editing Software Do You Use and What Is Your Basic Workflow?

I currently use a workflow that combines the use of Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop. I import all of my photographs into Lightroom as I enjoy the library system which allows one to organize, keyword, and categorize your images.

Once I import my images, I ensure that the sharpening is reduced to zero. I then apply all lens and chromatic aberration corrections in Lightroom, as well as make some basic adjustments to exposure, shadows, and highlights. I then finish off in Lightroom with some adjustments using the H/S/L module to refine colors.

Lastly, I export the image into Photoshop, where I use Luminosity masks to select and control the curves for shadows, mid-tones, and highlights. I also make other minor adjustments using dodge and burn layers. I finish off the image with some basic sharpening filters which I refine using layer masks for full control.

Who Has Influenced or Mentored You in Your Journey?

One of my podcast goals was to interview many of my favorite and influential photographers, so feel free to learn more on the podcast platform.

However, more specifically, I was inspired early on by a lesser-known Colorado-based photographer who also has a passion for mountaineering, Kane Engelbert. Kane took me under his wing (although he might not see it that way) and has been giving me great advice for many years, of which I am very appreciative of!


If you would like to follow Matt’s work, check out his website, Facebook or Instagram.

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About the author

Jennifer Venter

I am a passionate trained photographer currently living in China. I love travelling & meeting new people so my photos tend to fall into those categories. I love coffee, fashion & Christmas. The only thing that makes me run away in horror are scorpions. Contact me via email ([email protected]) or Instagram (@fleetingtimephotography).

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