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PPD Master Series: Jamie MacDonald & the Landscapes of the Mind

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday January 20, 2016

Describing Jamie MacDonald’s  photography is a bit tough because while many photographers are easily categorized by the subjects that they shoot or one particular style, his work often defies simple categorization. Indeed, in many ways, other than using real cameras and real subjects, he pretty much fabricates his own reality after the fact. What he photographs in the world around him serves largely as what he calls his canvas—a jumping-off point from which he almost always reinvents those subjects.

Despite the difficulty of labeling his work, MacDonald says that he is happy admitting that his primary interest is nature. “As much as I try to fight being pigeon holed into specific genre, I must admit I have a place in my heart for nature photography,” he says. “I don’t mind calling myself a ‘nature photographer’ because to me that genre covers so many subjects. It neatly encompasses the world around me.”

In addition to the time he spends shooting, MacDonald has worked hard at building a devoted online presence, particularly in the mirrorless-camera world. He has been evangelizing mirrorless cameras as an Olympus Trailblazer  since 2012 (his photos were featured in ad campaigns for the Olympus OM-D E-M10 in both North and South America) and is a member of the Olympus PEN Ready Project. He also has his own Youtube channel and, along with partner and fellow Olympus Trailblazer Mike Boening, have both a website and a blog called Mirrorless Minutes  and the two run a series of Olympus OM-D/PEN photo workshops.

MacDonald’s pursuit of photography as a creative outlet grew, not surprisingly, out of boredom with the traditional 9-5 reality. “My attraction to photography I believe started because I really missed the act of creating art,” he says. “In high school I was very involved in the arts, specifically painting and drawing. But after graduation I found myself in the rat race of a full time job and my creative side was left behind.” Despite his growing presence in the photo world, however, he admits he has also had to cling a bit to the real world: “I’ve been asked dozens of times how I moved from a 9-5 job, to shooting photos full time and my response I think is what helps me connect with my workshop attendees, because what I tell them is something that most of them can understand and relate to,” he says. “I have not left my 40-plus hour a week job to become a full time photographer. I just have too many family obligations to leave the safety net of health insurance and a consistent flow of income afforded me by a day job. So it is almost like I work two full time jobs right now.”
MacDonald recently took a breath to talk with writer Jeff Wignall  about his very singular approach to photography, his workshops and his social media.

(Photo credit: Mark Miller)

PPD: Is there a particular area of nature photography that you enjoy the most?
JM:
Without a doubt that area would be landscape photography. And I think what I love so much about landscape photography is that every trip out to shoot landscapes is like an adventure for me. I love the experience of travel, and even if I am traveling to the next town to shoot landscapes, it is like a micro adventure that I embark upon. It may sound crazy, but I have had as much fun shooting in Michigan, as I have in Maui, or British Columbia, or Utah. It is always an adventure to me. My own daily commute offers excitement regularly when I have my cameras with me!

PPD: A lot of your photos are of rural Michigan. What is it about the Michigan landscape that calls to you to go shoot?
NL: I think what calls me out to shoot is that this is home. And home is that place we all feel the most connected to and comfortable with. That connected feeling ultimately leads to a sense of calm that allows me to relax and create. I suppose it sounds a little heady or “new age” like, but there is something to be said for being able to connect with your creative side when you are at peace with your surroundings. You won’t find me striking yoga poses when I’m out shooting though.


PPD: When you go out shooting, do you have a subject or a destination in mind? Or are you just staying open to your surroundings?
JM:
That is really about a 50/50 split. There are certainly times when a location and or goal are my priority, but sometimes when the sky is ablaze with color like after a storm, I just hit the road and let the photo present itself to me. That might be right in town, or two counties away.

PPD: One of the things that you talk about on your site is the difference between the way that a scene looks in person and the way that it looks in your final images. Is the camera exposure just a stepping-off point for you?
JM: This answer is tied right back to what drew me into photography in the first place, my art background. While I have the utmost respect for the “straight out of camera” photographers out there, I am not that guy. For me I usually consider the image from the camera my canvas, and on that canvas I try to create emotion. I guess I am often trying to convey what I felt when I took the photo, not necessarily what the camera, or I saw.
PPD: Do you often make several versions of a single image?JM: I will typically shoot several photos of a scene with different adjustments made in camera to my exposure compensation or to the overall framing of the scene. But when I get back home and start to process the images I will select the one that had the ideal (in my mind) combination of exposure and composition, and process that one. Very rarely do I make more than one version of a given scene.

PPD: Do you make variations of each image in editing?
JM: I almost never make more than one version of a given image. If I am shooting a scene, I may take several shots that might appear the same, but have subtle differences in framing and perspective. From there I select the one that “feels right” and put my work into it. Again, when looking at the images straight from the camera I am trying to find that one “canvas” that has the most potential for a final image full of drama and emotion.

PPD: How do you achieve these effects?
JM: I have a very simple workflow that utilizes 3 pieces of software. Those are, Adobe Lightroom CC, Adobe Photoshop CC, and the NIK Software plugin suite.

I start off by importing into Lightroom CC where I make sure to keyword my images based on things like location, event, date, etc. From there I shoot my images over into one of the NIK Software plugins. The three that I use are HDR Efex PRO 2, Viveza 2, and Silver Efex PRO 2. I use these because they allow the user to do very localized adjustments to the images quickly. Once I am done in the NIK plugin I bring the image back into Lightroom where I will start doing adjustments to specific hue, saturation and luminance channels. Again, it is about fine-grained adjustments to specific parts of the image. I end the workflow with any cropping or straightening I may need and then I export. Also, I loathe telephone lines in my shots, so much so that if need be I will use that Photoshop CC to eliminate them. I find it easy enough to use the content aware fill or patch tool to remove them from the image.

PPD: You devote a lot of your energy to teaching both in person and online. Is teaching something you’ve always enjoyed doing?
JM:
For as much as I love teaching, I would have never imagined doing it before just a couple of years ago. So I would have to say that no, I have not always enjoyed it, but do I enjoy it now? Yes! I love to see eyes light up when I show someone how to do a particular thing with their camera, composition, or processing. It is like another way to create art, by creating excitement within another person.


PPD: Tell me about the workshops that you teach with fellow Olympus Trailblazer Mike Boening. How of are the workshops held?
JM:
Yeah the workshops! So the workshops Mike and I have been doing are done one of two ways. The first is an open format so that anyone can attend regardless of camera type. Those workshops are usually set up so that we cover a theme. For instance, last year we did a two-day workshop we called “Small Town to Downtown” that took attendees from the Michigan countryside shooting landscapes and a rural antique mall, to the streets of Detroit where we shot city life. It was so successful we will be doing it again here in Michigan.  The other format we do is for Olympus users. Those are geared towards either showing people how to use the many features of their Olympus camera, or designed to teach them how to best use a specific function such as Live Composite.

PPD: You’re also the founder of a popular website for mirrorless cameras called Mirrorless Minutes and a related video podcast. How long have you been creating the podcasts and what types of things do you talk about?
JM: The first podcast was on August 24th 2014 so that’s about a year and a half ago. The show is kind of a spinoff of my own Youtube channel where I was creating Olympus based tutorials and other branded reviews. So when I started Mirrorless Minutes I wanted to continue with the educational aspect and reviews, but also wanted to keep it fun by doing interviews and sharing photos too.

PPD: What is it about mirrorless cameras that has made such an impression on you that you’ve devoted so much time and energy to evangelizing them?
JM: I was hoping you would ask this question! When I first got my Olympus OM-D E-M5 (first generation) I was still the owner of three Olympus DSLRs and numerous standard 4/3 lenses. But that first day with the E-M5 I knew that the future of photography was in mirrorless technology. I can remember telling my wife I needed to figure out the best way to sell off my DSLR gear so I could switch systems. She knew the investment I had in my DSLR gear and was a little dismayed at that prospect.

PPD: What are the biggest differences or the best advantages in shooting with a mirrorless camera vs. a DSLR?
JM:
If we get past the obvious advantage of size, we can delve into the technical advantages of mirrorless. The first that comes to mind is the EVF (Electronic Viewfinder). The EVF if a miniature display which is showing you exactly what the display on the back of the camera would. So this means, that when you are looking in it, what you see is what the finished image will be. So when you adjust exposure compensation you see that change happen in the viewfinder, and the image made when you press the shutter button will be identical. You can’t do that looking through an optical viewfinder.

PPD: Are there things about using an electronic viewfinder that you think are better than using an optical finder?
JM:
One other advantage of an EVF that I’ll mention is the ability to magnify the view in the electronic viewfinder. This makes fine tuning your focus when doing macro, or when using manual focus a snap. I press a single button on my camera and the viewfinder jumps to 14x magnification. That is invaluable for macro work.

PPD: What’s in your mirrorless bag currently?
JM:
This is going to sound like a lot, but keep in mind the size of my gear. I just went on an urbexing trip so the bag I took with me had the following gear in it. As for camera bodies, I carry an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II (w/ battery grip) and an Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II. My lens kit consists of these lenses: M.Zuiko 8mm f/1.8 Fisheye PRO, M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO, M.Zuiko 12-40mm f/2.8 PRO and an M.Zuiko 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO.
And no, I wasn’t carrying a duffle bag full of gear, it was all in a Think TANK Photo Retrospective 30 shoulder bag. Amazing right?


PPD: In describing how a few of the photos on your blog were made, you talk about using the Live Composite feature. Can you talk about what that is and how you use it?
JM:
When I tell people about Live Composite I usually tell them it is magic. After a few chuckles I explain to them that what Live Composite does is take a base exposure of your scene, for example a cityscape at night. Once that base exposure has been captured, you trigger the shutter once more and a long exposure begins. But the magic is that the camera only records differences in light from the base exposure. What is great is that for one, the lights in the city never over expose! They are part of that “base exposure”, but if say a car drives by, its headlights or taillights will be added to the image, or if a plane flies by, or even the motion of the stars, those get added as well. So how do I use Live composite? I use it to shoot cities full of motion at night, to shoot star trails and the Aurora, and one of my favorites is fireworks.

PPD: Some of your landscapes have what seem like intentionally distorted horizons shot with wide-angle lenses—why are you doing that and what lenses are you using to do that?
JM:
The images you are referring to are most likely shot with a fisheye lens. The reasoning behind that selection is twofold. The first being that before the M.Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO was released, the widest lenses I had at my disposal were fisheye lenses. So when I wanted a sweeping vista I often put the fisheye on my camera. But I could have used a regular lens and done a panorama right? That is where the conscious decision to use a fisheye comes in. I feel that the extreme curvature adds a certain dimension of drama to the image and that it why even after M. Zuiko 7-14mm PRO lens came out, I sometimes still pull a fisheye out when shooting a landscape.


PPD: A lot of your work is done in black and white. Why do you choose to  work in monotone?
JM:
I really hope this doesn’t sound cliché but, there is a certain timeless feel to black and white that color just does not evoke in a person. If I shared the same shot in color and in black and white, then asked people which one was shot more recently (which I have done) people almost always say the black and white image is older. So I almost feel like that sense of age adds some nostalgic connection to the image. I also love black and white because it is very easy to bring a dramatic feeling to an image by working in only tones and contrasts and not in multitudes of colors.

PPD: Did you ever work in black and white in the pre-digital era? In fact, did you ever shoot with film or were you born into the digital era?
JM:
I love that you used the term “born into the digital era” as that is what I tell people about my photographic history. My first camera was an Olympus E-500 DSLR. I will admit that I sometimes wonder if I missed out by not having “film experience”.

PPD: Your black and white shots are very moody, often low key. What draws you to that look?
JM: I want my work to elicit some sort of emotional response by the viewer. When I edit my work I often try to create a scene that will get that response. It isn’t that I am a dark person though, I laugh too much for that.


PPD: Weather-related shots seem to be another big theme for you. Are you a bit of a storm chaser?
JM:
Oh yes! I have a bucket list like many photographers, although I will admit my bucket is pretty shallow. I have three must do items on it. One of which is a good storm chase in the plains states here in the U.S. But in the mean time I try to satisfy that dream by chasing weather here in Michigan.

PPD: Your portraits tend to be a little bit offbeat both in who you shoot and the settings that you choose. 
JM: Yeah I suppose that they wouldn’t conform to any of your typical portrait standards. Since the people that are featured in the few portraits I do share are friends or my children, I have some creative liberty with them. I have done my share of weddings, senior portraits, and even some maternity and family shoots, and those do fall into what one would expect them to, but secretly inside I want to just do my own thing with them.

PPD: When you’re not shooting or editing photos, what’s your favorite thing to do?
JM: Go camping with my family. We have a camper parked on the west side of Michigan that we visit almost every weekend from May through October. There is nothing better than watching my boys play with their cousins and to sit at the campfire with my wife and just forget about the rat race of everyday life.

PPD: Do you have a vision for where you would like to be in photography in the next few years?
JM: I would like to be doing more workshops around the country and one per year in Iceland. Yes, Iceland is on my bucket list too, so to be able to experience that beauty with other photographers would be ideal. I’d also like to get a few gallery showings lined up so more local people could see my work. I am pretty sure that the vast majority of what I create is seen by people who don’t live in the state where it was created, and that bothers me a little.

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