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From Snapshots to Great Shots: An Interview with Photographer Jeff Revell

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Jeff Revell answers our questions about his favorite camera, the most overused photography tool, and what's so great about photowalks.

Peachpit: You have written quite a few books in the “Snapshots to Great Shots” series, including books on how to get the most out of your Canon EOS Rebel, Nikon D800, D3100, and others.  Which camera that you’ve written about is your favorite and why?

Jeff Revell: That really is a hard question to answer for a couple of reasons. First, I have written a lot of camera books so I have had a lot of great gear to play with and second, I tend to develop a relationship with each camera as I use it. That being said, I would probably have to say that of all the cameras that I have written books for, the D800 is the favorite from that group. It’s the one camera that, after having seen the press release announcing its release I said to myself, “I want that camera.” I had actually already placed an order for one before I even had an agreement with my editor for a book on it. After receiving the camera and shooting with it for a while, I knew that it was going to be one of my all-time favorites. I was first attracted by the large 36MP sensor, but there is a quality to the images that is unique and beautiful. Being someone who loves landscape photography, this camera just clicked with me as the perfect tool for that genre.

Peachpit: How did you get started as a photographer, and how did you make the jump to professional photography?

Jeff: I started off in photography as a high school junior. I was looking for an elective to take and thought that taking pictures would be a pretty easy way to spend a period in my day. I had no idea at the time that I would make a career of it, but having a great teacher really sparked a love of the medium in me and gave me a great creative outlet. After high school I got a job as a photofinisher working in a photo lab where I processed and printed other people’s photos. From there I made the leap to shooter and have been doing it from that point on. 

Peachpit: Of all the photographs you’ve taken, which is your favorite, and why?

Jeff: I have a photograph hanging in my office that I took about eight years ago while on a trip to Cambodia. It is a simple composition of an old man sweeping in the Angkor Wat temple. I took thousands of photographs during that trip, but that particular image has always held a special place in my heart. There is just something about it that captures so many emotions and asks so many questions. To me, that is the mark of a great image: that it’s not just something that you look at but more something that you experience. That it has an impact on you in some way, shape, or form. That it makes you think. That’s what this image has always done for me.

Peachpit: In your experience, what’s the biggest difference between a professional and an amateur photographer?

Jeff: I think that is a pretty easy answer – money. I know tons of fantastic photographers who create beautiful images but never sell a thing. It’s their hobby. They may be really good at it but if they aren’t getting paid, in my opinion, they aren’t professionals. That being said, I know plenty of photographers who couldn’t shoot their way out of a paper bag and yet they are getting paid, making them professionals. Just remember that the title isn’t always an indicator of the skill level. I think another key component to being a professional is responsibility. When you are a professional, you are usually working for someone else, which means you have a responsibility to produce a product in a given time frame with an expected result. An amateur or hobbyist is usually free from these responsibilities, which in itself can allow for much great creative freedom.

Peachpit: What’s the most overused or abused photography tool (hardware or software)?

Jeff: Such a loaded question because people get very passionate about their gear, their processes, and their art. For me, there is one big one that I think gets way over-used and that is the relic photo look. I have spent my entire career trying to make photos that didn’t look like crap and now the big thing is to apply some filter that looks like the image came from a scratched up negative that wasn’t processed correctly. Who knew that some many people would love the look of a bad photo? I could have saved myself a lot of time and energy over the years if I had known that. Some other overused tools are HDR and prime lenses. HDR is a wonderful process and I love using it when the subject calls for it, but seriously, not every subject looks great with a heavy HDR effect applied to it. As for the primes, I wouldn’t say that they are overused, but there is this mindset that to get beautiful photos you need to be shooting with a 50mm f1/4 lens. That’s great if you need very shallow depth of field, but the reality is that a good zoom lens will probably serve you better in the long run. Believe me when I say that no one is looking at your photos and thinking, “Wow, they must have used a nice prime lens for this.”

Peachpit: Is there a new piece of equipment or software that you’re especially keen on at the moment?

Jeff: In the past year or so I have been trying to open up to video a little more. I still love the still image and it will probably always be my primary medium for storytelling, but I have become fascinated with time-lapse photography and I love what it brings to the table. At first I was just using a still camera and an intervalometer to capture a series of still images that combine into a time-lapse movie, but recently I have been working with sliders to include motion to the time-lapse process. It’s very gear intensive, but the results can be very dynamic and add a whole new dimension to the process when done right. There are a few good sliders on the market and I have been playing with one from Kessler Crane called the Stealth Slider.

Peachpit: Your website is named PhotoWalkPro and you have a section devoted to photowalking. Tell us about a recent photowalk, and what you got out of it.

Jeff: Unfortunately I haven’t been out nearly as often as I would have liked due to the winter weather and some book projects. I think the last photowalk that I led was this past fall in Harpers Ferry, WV. This was one of the walks associated with the Scott Kelby Worldwide Photowalk, which takes place every fall. The thing about a photowalk is that it’s not just about the photography. There is a social aspect to it that is very unique and special. It allows people with a shared interest to come together for a couple of hours and swap stories, experiences, gear, and maybe even make some new friends. Twitter, Facebook, and Google Plus all have their place, but nothing is quite the same as walking a trail or street alongside your fellow photographers. It is the true social media experience. Another great benefit of photowalking with others is that you get a chance to see an environment from someone else’s perspective. I always set up Flickr photo group for my photowalks so that everyone can share their images. The one thing that always amazes me is how I can be standing in the same location with so many other photographers and yet see such a wide variety of imagery. That in itself has really helped me with my photography by reminding me to not necessarily be happy with the first photo but to look around for different vantage points and perspectives.

Peachpit: Your website is also known for its informational articles on everything from camera gear to Lightroom tips. Which of your posts is most popular?

Jeff: I think one of my most popular posts is one that I wrote some time ago called 10 Places to Photograph Before I Die. It was really just a bucket list of the locations that I really wanted to visit and photograph. I love foreign travel and travel photography, and this list was just something that I put out there as a way to spark a conversation about what other folks may have on their lists. Somehow it went viral and the number of views went through the roof. I hope it’s because I sparked the thought in others that you should really make a point to write down what it is that you want. Doing so makes it real and also kind of challenges you to make it happen. As for my original list, I have knocked off 5 of the original 10 locations. Of course I just put new ones in as I mark off the old because it’s a list that I never want to complete.

Peachpit: Tell us about The Photographer’s Daily and why you started it.

Jeff: That one is really kind of interesting. I never really intended for it to be anything but a tool to help me catch up on what I might have missed on Twitter. I have a fairly focused list of photographers that I follow but found it difficult to keep up with all the great content they were publishing. That’s when I found this website called paper.li whose free service allowed me to pinpoint the people and info that I was interested in and then compile it into a daily online newspaper for me to review.  It broadcasts a tweet when the latest edition is ready, and I guess folks who follow me started checking it out and retweeted it, and it has just kind of grown since then. The service has grown, and it can now scour through stories on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, YouTube, RSS feeds, and more. I should probably go back and take a look at my settings and expand the search fields to deliver even more content since it has such a large readership now.

Peachpit: You mentioned in your interview with Matt Brandon in your Depth of Field interview that it took you a while to learn to take a pretty picture (vs. a technical one). Can you explain what you meant by that?

Jeff: Learning to take a technically correct photograph isn’t all that difficult. There are specific rules for exposure that, when followed, will create a properly exposed image. That doesn’t mean it is a pretty picture. Photography isn’t just about knowing the rules of exposure, it’s about learning to see. It took me a long while to figure out how to move beyond taking a photo and making a photo. I think I just stole that from Rick Sammon but it is true. It’s not enough to know how to take a picture, but knowing how to use that knowledge to capture a vision is what will bring your photography to life. Motion, depth of field, color, light, composition; these are the components for creating a pretty picture that take time to develop and cultivate.

Peachpit: If you could give one piece of advice to a professional photographer just starting out, what would it be?

Jeff: Find something you love and use that to your advantage. Don’t become a wedding photographer if you don’t like working with people. Don’t be a landscape photographer if you don’t have patience. Don’t be a commercial photographer if you hate using flash. You have to enjoy your subject to allow your creativity to be reflected in your photos. Sure you could do the opposite of what I just said, but how good do you think those wedding photos will be if you aren’t enjoying the process. Be passionate about your subject and it will come through in your images. Once you figure out what it is that you truly want to shoot, try and figure out what everyone else is doing and see if there isn’t a way to separate you from the pack. It’s easy to say but much harder to do, but when you find it, the work will find you instead of the other way around.

Peachpit: What’s on your wish list for places or things to photograph?

Jeff: I really enjoy shooting action and would love to do more sports photography in the professional arena. It’s challenging and unforgiving. The action is usually fast and there aren’t any do-overs. If you miss it - too bad. That’s what is so special about it. It’s an in-the-moment experience and a skillset all its own. I would love to shoot some more pro football. I got an opportunity to run the sidelines at a Redskins game, and it was an amazing experience that went by all too fast. And trust me when I tell you that once you have watched and shot a game from the sidelines it makes it really hard to go back up into the stands. As for other wish list places, I will defer to my bucket list of travel locations. There’s nothing I love more than getting my passport stamped on the way to the unknown. Nepal, China, Ireland, or pretty much any UNESCO site will fill the bill quite nicely. Where will it be first? I don’t know, but that’s not important. As long as I have my camera and something amazing to point it at, I will be one happy camper.

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