Photographer of the Month | September 2020: Max Foster
Interview with American photographer Max Foster
Original Interview By Christian Hoiberg for Capture Landscapes
I’m excited to announce this month’s featured photographer, Max Foster! Max is an American landscape photographer specializing in gallery-quality fine art prints and high end, large format photographic art.
He has an impressive portfolio and I’m particularly enjoying the unique imagery he comes back with from his annual backcountry hiking expeditions. In this interview, you’ll get to know about how Max got started with landscape photography, his experiences traveling full-time in an RV, his approach to creating gallery-quality prints, and more!
Start by telling us a little about yourself and how you got started with landscape photography.
As a kid, I was always fascinated by the images in travel and nature magazines, but never considered how I could create imagery like that on my own. After college, I started dating my future wife, Amy, and we began traveling frequently. The photos I was taking at that time were snapshots at best, and I was disappointed by the results.
This became the catalyst for my journey into photography, and I began learning as much as I could about exposure, composition and processing. Within a few years, I was organizing travel around photography and was completely hooked. This reignited a passion for the outdoors and wilderness, and ever since I have been doing as many adventures as possible.
You spent 15 months traveling the USA in an RV back in 2018/2019. What inspired you to hit the road and what was your main goal of this adventure?
As most people can relate to, I was feeling limited by the amount of vacation time I had with my job. The list of places I wanted to visit was outpacing the time I had to make it happen. I pitched the idea of traveling for a year to my wife, and within a few weeks, we were committed to the idea and started planning.
In the past, we traveled to other countries for our vacations but we felt like the USA had so much to see we decided the best solution was to buy an RV and road trip in the states. Our primary goals for this trip were to see as much of the USA as possible, learn about the different areas we visited and to have the trip of a lifetime.
I ended up working my job remotely during this time, which was challenging, but ultimately worked out very well. Photography was also a priority, so we had a lot to balance.
Share with us some of the challenges (both photography and non-photography related) you faced during this travel.
All the challenges we faced were manageable when compared to the great opportunity we had to take the trip. We were extremely fortunate to be able to do the trip, and that helped put the other obstacles in perspective.
Nonetheless, adjusting to life in a small RV is a challenge in itself! We put most of our belongings in storage prior to the trip, and after much planning brought only the essentials on the trip with us. This was difficult due to the wide range of weather we expected to experience, everything from below freezing temps to 112 degrees in Death Valley National Park. If you find that you do not have what you need, you either need to buy something new or go without it.
Some of the typical challenges faced were things you never have to think about at home:
• We enjoyed “dry camping” in places that have no water/electric/sewer for the RV, and therefore had to plan our resources very carefully. We would try to extend these stays as long as we could, which meant getting creative with our water usage. Skipping showers became quite normal!
• Since our RV was not a 4 season, we had to plan our wintertime around the temperatures in the USA. There were many times in the southernmost states we still experienced temps below freezing and had to have extra heaters in the RV to keep the pipes from freezing.
• Mice seem to like RVs. We had several visitors looking to hitch a ride, no matter what we did to seal up every possible hole and access point.
• We had a general idea of our route around the USA, but we did not plan it out ahead of time. Instead, we planned on the fly and oftentimes had to find a place to park the RV while driving to our destination. This last-minute planning usually worked well, but there were certainly times when we had to park at a Wal Mart overnight or in a non-descript pullout when we couldn’t book a campsite.
• Because I was working remotely, our main concern when heading to new destinations was cell reception. Wherever we went, I needed close access to cell networks so I could log into my work computer. This was a challenge, but websites like Campendium.com made it much easier with user reviews of cell reception.
What advice do you have for other adventurers who want to travel full-time for a longer period of time?
Do it now! One consistent theme I hear from people is that “someday” they want to do a trip like this. The truth is there is never going to be the “perfect time,” so the best thing we did was pick a specific date (6 months to 1 year out) and started planning for it. When we were traveling, we were usually the youngest full-time RVers we met; the vast majority were retirees. When we talked with these people, they almost always said they wished they had done it sooner in life when they could be more active.
This quote from Thoreau inspired me to make this trip happen, even though it wasn’t the conventional thing to do: “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.”
You’ve previously taken a longer break of social media to focus on your photography. In what ways did you find this beneficial?
Social media seems to be omnipresent in our lives today. Before people are even done experiencing something in real life, they are posting about it online. I know I have certainly been guilty of this in the past. So much time is spent on social media, I cannot help but think about what people are missing out on in real life.
During our RV trip, we had to monitor our cellular data usage frequently to make sure I had enough available for work each month. It was at this time that I decided to take a long break from social media, and effectively stopped posting. This allowed me to focus time on real-life experiences, be more connected to the people around me and gave me more productive time throughout each day.
Were there any downsides of taking a break from the digital world?
Clearly, one of the most significant benefits to photographers on social media is the promotion of their work. Without posting and promoting, it can be difficult to maintain an audience and sell your work. This was a sacrifice I was OK with for a year as I was so busy with everything else.
Today, I post my work across social media platforms, but my time is much more focused on other projects. Social is a portion of my marketing strategy, but only a small part of it. I prefer not to invest too heavily into platforms that are controlled by third parties, as they can greatly affect your business on a whim.
Printmaking is a big part of your business. How does one start making an income from prints and what are some of the pitfalls to avoid?
There are many avenues to sell your work in print form today. The most common is to sell on your own website, but there are also several other ecommerce platforms designed for artists, in addition to sites like Ebay.
I have been selling my work online for many years, and believe a multifaceted approach is best. I utilize both my own website, as well as third-party sites to sell my work. I would encourage photographers looking to sell prints to find marketplaces to suit their own specific goals.
Additionally, there are some general takeaways I have learned over the years. First and foremost, the images people want hanging in their living rooms or offices are usually not the moody, dramatic images so many photographers enjoy creating. I struggled with this idea for a long time, before realizing that I can create those images as well as more marketable images and it does not make me less of an artist. Additionally, you cannot simply post images online and expect them to sell. You need to be proactive with your marketing and invest in your business if you want results.
You do a lot of large format printing too – how does this affect your in-field and post-processing workflows?
Images need to be carefully captured and edited to maximize detail and dynamic range. It is amazingly easy to capture an image that looks great on a mobile device at 1200px. However, when that image is sized to 80” wide, all its imperfections become visible.
With that in mind, I am always focused on “shooting for print.” Some things to consider when shooting this way are: utilizing focus stacking, ensuring images are tack sharp, no blurred foliage, no out of focus edges, no blown highlights or lack of shadow detail and maintaining a light hand when post-processing.
I always create two image files; one for posting online, and another for print. My print files are all scoured at 100%-200% for details that can ruin prints such as dust spots, color noise, etc. I also have an extensive sharpening process for each size print I create. All these things greatly impact the final print quality.
Can you take us through some of your process in planning and executing your yearly backcountry photo trips?
I started doing backcountry photo trips years ago with the goal of experiencing more remote areas of our world. It is easy to create great landscape images from roadside pull-offs and short day-hikes, but I wanted to challenge myself physically as well as photographically.
Backcountry, off-trail trips are a great way to utilize your photographic skills without preconceived ideas of images in your head. Oftentimes, you do not know what the next ridgeline or river bend will reveal and that is exciting to experience.
These trips take a lot more planning than road trips and front-country trips. I usually begin the process by selecting an area of interest and then searching for mountaineering or trekking trip reports online. These reports usually describe the terrain, challenges and obstacles one may encounter. Then using topographical maps of the area, I plan out general routes. Backcountry trips have an element of the unknown, which is enjoyable once you get used to the uncertainty.
After route planning, it is essential to plan out all the details related to backpack weight, daily calorie requirements, gear needed, safety items (Satellite phone or communicator, first aid kit, etc) and your training regimen. To have a successful backcountry trip, I recommend studying the route, terrain and weight you will be carrying. You then need to get in great shape! Carrying a heavy pack in trailless terrain for several days takes endurance, both mentally and physically.
Lastly, what are your top 3 tips for those who are just getting started with landscape photography?
• I think it is more important than ever to respect, maintain and care for our natural areas. Everyone should be able to enjoy the incredible natural areas around the world, but it takes education to ensure these places remain pristine. For those just starting out in landscape photography, I would highly encourage you to learn about wilderness ethics, leave no trace and Nature First.
• Find your own path. Learn from the photographers you respect and admire, but do your best to create images that speak to you.
• Do not be afraid of constructive criticism. Be open to hearing critical comments or tips for your photography, as this will help you grow and become a stronger photographer.
Thanks again to Max for taking the time to answer these questions. Make sure to visit his website or Instagram to enjoy more of his wonderful photography.