Landscape photographer Josh Holko travels all over the world in pursuit of the perfect landscape. He talks to Marc Gafen about what may well be the best job in photography.
Josh Holko’s passion for landscapes takes him all over the world, often to some of the most remote locations on the planet. Some of the award-winning photographer’s favourite destinations include Iceland, the South Island of New Zealand, the US and Tasmania.
Holko’s interest in photography began when he was just ten years old. His father owned medium and large format cameras and the young Holko often assisted in the darkroom. Despite his early enthusiasm for photography his first serious job ended up being in sales and marketing. It wasn’t meant to be that way. In his late teens Holko enrolled in Melbourne’s Photography Studies College (PSC) but ran out of money before finishing.
Fortunately, after several years in the world of marketing he was able to return to full-time study at PSC and then found work as a photographer. His first foray into professional photography saw him working in a studio environment with a business partner operating Kids Up Close. Holko found shooting kids portraits, in the studio, to be a particularly competitive part of the market and about 12 months ago he divested himself of the business.
“I got out of it because I wanted to follow my true passion in photography – landscapes and wilderness photography,” he says.
“I didn’t want to spend all my time shooting in the studio. I am a really big believer that we do our best work when we are passionate about what we’re shooting.”
Favourite subjects? Icebergs and glaciers, two items sadly in short supply in his home country, Australia. When we spoke, Holko was planning a month-long photo expedition to Antarctica.
But the amazing destinations, often accompanied by long and arduous travel, are not without their dangers. Recently while shooting at the terminal face of Fox Glacier in New Zealand, Holko was almost killed when a rock fall sent large rocks plummeting down the mountain toward him. A number of rocks the size of basketballs landed just a few feet away from where he was shooting – he was lucky not to have been killed or seriously injured.
While the career of a professional photographer and especially a landscape photographer can appear glamorous, the reality, says Holko, is that you have to work extremely hard.
While most people believe the job is mostly about travelling and shooting, Holko says he spends roughly 99 per cent of his time marketing his business and the remaining 1 per cent shooting.
One of the keys to being a successful landscape photographer is having your own style, something Holko says he didn’t hit upon until a few years ago.
“It was something my wife said,” he recalls. “She suggested that I needed to stop making my images look like photographs and instead realise that what I am actually creating is art.”
This struck a chord with Holko who stopped viewing what he was producing as documentary pieces and switched to output his works on matte rag paper stocks exclusively.
“I am less concerned with technical excellence that with emotion,” he says. “And while technical excellence is still very important and we need to strive towards that, the image has to have emotion. When people buy my images it’s because of how it makes them feel.”
Consequently, he is always looking to capture an emotional hook in his pieces; that thing that draws the viewer in. Successful landscape images, says Holko, contain three crucial elements; great subject matter, great composition and great light. And contrary to what Meatloaf says, two out of three is not enough.
Holko, his own harshest critic, says the success ratio can be very low if you’re trying to get all three in the best combination. For his well-known image ‘Blue Berg’, he returned to the location almost 20 times to get just the right light. Of the more than 1000 frames he shot, he narrowed his favourite selection down to just three images.
In terms of post-production there are two very specific rules he follows. No HDR and no composite images. “Every image is captured from a single frame in the field, unless I stitch images together to form a panorama.”
His approach generally involves very little work in post production. All his images are captured in RAW format and then processed initially in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom where he sets both the white and black points as well as the white balance.
“I am interested in pleasing colour, not accurate colour,” he says.
Gear and equipment
Holko, a dedicated Canon user, doesn’t travel light. His workhorse camera bodies are the EOS 1Ds Mark III and 1D Mark IV. As far as lenses go, he relies on a broad selection of glass including a 14mm, 17mm tilt-shift, 24mm f1.4, 50mm f1.2, 70-200mm f2.8, 300mm f2.8 as well as a 1.4x teleconverter.
Of these, he says his favourite is the 24mm for landscapes. To make sure his images are pin-sharp for longer exposures he uses a Gitzo 6x carbon tripod with a Really Right Stuff ball head. All this gear somehow fits in a Kiboko Gura Gear camera bag, which he swears by. Another piece of kit that he can’t live without is his collection of Lee Graduated Neutral Density filters.
To protect his gear from becoming saturated while shooting he finds it difficult to go past a plastic bag, or even a shower cap! Holko says the Canon 1-series camera bodies are practically indestructible. On a recent shoot in New Zealand he dropped his 1Ds Mark III out of a helicopter. “It fell six feet. Thankfully, it bounced across the glacier. I picked it up and kept using it.”
Natural landscapes can be messy, says Holko. His aim is to simplify a scene and make his images as structured as possible. One of the ways he does this is to use leading lines to better direct viewers’ eyes.
“Being in the right place at the right time is part of capturing amazing images. But you need to have an eye for composition and be prepared to put in long hours in the field waiting for the right light.”
One thing Holko is not remotely interested in is shooting is sunsets, however when he is trying to work out what it is about a scene that works for him he will often capture shots with sunset light. It is the quality of the light that drives his photographs.
His favourite skies are usually the darker, moodier skies which he feels are more evocative. Landscape images are judged by the quality of light and Holko says it’s important to learn to differentiate between mediocre and great light and to look for colour as well as soft, diffuse light before setting up for a shot. “I look for what I call, ‘nature’s softbox’,” he says. His favourite time to shoot is early morning with good even cloud cover.
Holko says the secret to success is to shoot what you’re passionate about. As long as you’re passionate, contends Holko, you’ll produce your best work. Something else he believes in is the importance of formal study – not just for the technical elements of the craft but also to develop your eye and your style.
In order to improve your landscapes, Holko suggests shooting when the light is best – generally early morning and late afternoon. He also says it’s critical to focus your attention on composition. “And most importantly,” he says, “just get out there and shoot as much as you can.”
Edited excerpt from an article fist published in Digital Photography + Design, Feb-Mar 2012.
Pot of Gold: The Midnight Sun bathes the volcanic mountains in golden light as distant rain showers pass across the alien landscape at Landmannalaugar in Iceland. Located near the volcano Hekla in the southern part of the highlands Landmannalaugar consists of multicoloured rhyolite mountains and expansive lava fields. (Canon EOS 1DS MKIII, 70-200mm F2.8L IS. 1/13s @ f8, ISO 400. Lee 3-Stop Hard Graduated Neutral Density Filter.)
Molten Silver Torrent Sunrise at Selfoss Waterfall in Iceland. The first rays of the sun illuminate the far shore of this Martian like canyon and landscape. Raging glacial water cascades over the precipitous rocky edges and races between the canyon walls on its way to Detifoss waterfall downstream and the Arctic Ocean. (Canon EOS 1DS MKIII, 24mm F1.4L MKII. 1.3s @ f11, ISO 100. Lee 3-Stop Hard Graduated Neutral Density Filter.)
Highway to Hell: Taken at sunrise at a geothermal volcanic area in Iceland known as Námafjall. Sulphur and steam rise from fumaroles and vents in the Earth’s surface as the first glow of dawn illuminates the dark clouds. (Canon EOS 1DS MKIII, 24mm F1.4L MKII. 0.6s @ f8, ISO 100. Lee 3-Stop Hard Graduated Neutral Density Filter.)
Blue Berg: Photographed on the black sand beach near the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon in Iceland. Icebergs carve off Europe’s largest glacier the Vatnajökull glacier and are washed out a narrow channel to sea with the outgoing tide. The tide then brings them up and deposits them back on the beach before they are washed out to sea again where they melt. A storm was brewing out at sea when this was taken. The iceberg is backlit from the sun making it appear to glow within. It was the winner of the 2011 World Extreme Environment Peoples Choice Award and won a Gold Award at the 2011 Australian Institute of Professional Photography Awards. (Canon EOS 1DS MKIII, 24mm F1.4L. 1.3s @ f/11, ISO 100. Lee 3-Stop Soft Graduated Neutral Density Filter.)
Well of Life: The blue pool is located in the remote Iceland wilderness at Hveravellir. What looks like ice around the edge is volcanic silica deposits. Sulphur rises from the surface of the boiling water. (Canon EOS 1DS MKIII, 24mm F1.4L MKII. 0.6s @ f9, ISO 200. Lee 3-Stop Hard Graduated Neutral Density Filter.)