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PPD Master Series: Tanmay Sapkal: From Adversity to Peak Adventure

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday April 21, 2021

Considering the exotic geographic locations that surrounded him in his youth in India, it probably isn’t any wonder that Tanmay Sapkal would eventually discover a passion for, and a destiny with, the beauty of landscapes.  “I was born and raised in a small town called Tarapur, nestled right in between the Western Ghats (a mountain range that covers most of Indian west coast) and the Arabian sea,” says Sapkal. “This gave me easy access to a variety of landscapes growing up. I would go hiking with my dad in the morning and then play in the ocean with my friends in the evening—think Hawaii, but warmer. This exposure to nature early on in my life shaped the way I view the world.”

Sapkal’s parents were both passionate travelers and kindled his interest in travel and geography early on in life. “My first ever train journey was when I was six days old,” he says. “By the time I was 13, we had visited 20 out of the 26 Indian states.” Fortunately, they brought along a Kodak film camera to record these trips. “We took a lot of pictures as a family and my father would diligently get them developed every time we got back,” he recalls. “Over the years, we had amassed a pretty sizable collection of travel photos. I used to love sitting down and going through them and reminisce about the good times.”

That love of adventure and recording his journeys traveled with Sapkal when he moved to the United States in 2014. Today, while he works full time as a product designer for Apple, he spends most of his weekends vagabonding around both California and some far-flung corners of the globe in search of inspiring subjects. Sapkal recently took time out of his nonstop work and photo schedule to speak with writer Jeff Wignall about his adventurous and challenging youth, his passion for wilderness and his love of Tamron lenses.

PPD: You had a serious health event early in your life that has been a continuing challenge but also helped to spark your photo passion, can you talk about that?

TS: Just after my 13th birthday, my parents and I went on our first long Himalayan expedition. The expedition was 14 days long, and pretty challenging for a 13 year old. Regardless, I had some of the best times of my life. During the expedition, I was lucky to have some professional photographers in our group, who were kind enough to let me tail them, and even shoot with their cameras whenever possible. The expedition was overall a success, but it was pretty hard on my body. I lost close to a third of my bodyweight during the trip. I was pretty chubby to be honest, but still, it was a significant weight loss.

The severe weight loss worried my parents and they decided to get me checked out. Turned out I was suffering from a rare but less aggressive form of leukemia. The news broke my parents. I was still too young and naive to understand the gravity of the situation and figured I’d be fine as usual. Little did I know that this was going to change the entire course of my life.

PPD: How did this diagnosis change your life and how did it connect to photography?

TS: I was bed ridden for the next two years and almost never went out of the house. Despite being stuck at home, I still had all those pictures we had collected over the years. I would spend a good amount of time just staring at them. For my 15th birthday, my dad got us our first digital camera. Even though I couldn’t get out the house, I would still try to shoot whatever was interesting I saw out of the window of my room (we used to stay in a high-rise with pretty nice views.). This is where my interest in photography really began. It was like a window in my very rather confined life.

Thankfully I am currently in remission and can keep the cancer under control with regular medication. Hopefully we will see a cure in my lifetime.  

PPD: By day you work as a hardware designer for Apple, are you restless to get into the field with your camera?

TS: I have a master’s degree in computer engineering and I am passionate about what I do for work. Luckily, I happen to work on cameras for Apple. I feel like working on the technology you are so passionate about gives you that additional push to innovate. My creativity from photography helps me innovate at work and my attention to detail at work helps me with my photography.

PPD: What were the first landscape subjects that you photographed in the States?

TS: As cliched as it can get, I photographed the tunnel view in Yosemite Valley in early 2016. In all fairness, it was pretty terrible shot, but it still got a lot of praise from my friends which motivated me to keep at it. I am still working on getting a good shot of the tunnel view.

PPD: Did you always know that landscape photography would become the dominant subject in your work?

TS: As I mentioned earlier, I initially did it as an excuse to travel. But as I went deeper and deeper in it, I realized how much there was to learn, and more than that, how much was there to explore and photograph. I got enamored by the beauty you get to experience while photographing landscapes. A regular being might experience such divine conditions a few times in their lifetime, but as a landscape photographer, you make it your job to experience it over and over again. What more can you ask for?

PPD: You have photographed in a lot of exciting geographic places ranging from Japan to the Sierra Nevada and parks like Yosemite in a relatively short number of years. How much time do you spend on the road shooting?

TS: Whenever shooting locally (US west coast), I travel almost every weekend, doing longer trips on alternate weekends. This can get hectic, especially when balancing with my day job. I cannot thank my wife enough for being an excellent partner in all of this. I don’t think I would have been able to do any of it without her support. She takes up half the responsibility for our trips including logistics and food. She’s always enthusiastic when it comes to exploring new places and helps pull my weight whenever I fall short or break down due my health conditions.

PPD: What’s a typical shooting trip like for you?

TS: A typical trip for me is usually a three- or four-day affair. I try to plan my trips around ideal weather conditions and, whenever possible, I try to book my flights at the last minute. Because I am not too fussy about doing touristy things, it usually doesn’t matter if I can’t find any reservations. As long as I have bed to sleep on and a shower once during the trip, I am good.

I believe I spend twice the time planning the trip than I do shooting. I do a lot of my scouting on Google earth and through other photographers or local guides. During the trip, I spend my afternoons exploring and looking for compositions, and shoot when the sun is closer to the horizon.

PPD: You have a gift for arriving in landscape locations at moments of extreme drama. Is there a secret to being there at such dramatic moments?

TS: I feel that to be good a landscape photographer one needs to teach themselves how to read weather and light. This is one of the things I have picked up over the last few years. I am almost constantly tracking the weather in regions of interest and use freely available resources to predict when we might get good conditions.  I feel like meteorology is the one of the top skills one needs to have if you want to capture wide vistas in good light. Another secret to not having boring light in my photographs is that I only showcase my interesting work. I fail a lot more than I succeed, and those photos never see the light of day. If I feel like my shot is not capable of evoking emotion, I don’t bother post-processing it. I would say that 99% of my photos end up like that.

PPD: What are your favorite or go-to Tamron lenses?

TS: My current primary kit contains these three lenses: Tamron 17-28, Tamron 28-75 and the Tamron 70-300mm. All the three lenses have excellent image quality at the apertures I use for landscapes (f/8 to f/16), making them perfect for the application.

PPD: What is it about Tamron optics in general that made you bring them into your work?

TS: Here’s how I would list the top three things I love about my Tamron lenses. First and foremost, their weight and size. Switching to a mirrorless camera and Tamron lenses has fundamentally changed how I shoot. I can fit a lot more gear in the same amount of space and weight. And when I am backpacking, I now have to carry a lot less weight without compromising on gear. For e.g. Tamron 17-28 and 28-200 covers almost the entire focal range I need for landscapes.

Second, is the consistently great image quality across the board. I have five Tamron lenses in my arsenal now, and I can choose any one of them based on my use case without having to worry about image quality. And speaking of my collection of Tamron lenses, I come to the third point, their versatility in focal lengths and apertures. There's a lens for every application. For example, I can take only my Tamron 28-200mm on long treks and I have got almost the entire focal range. When I am shooting on longer road trips, I take my three-lens kit for the extended optical range and even better image quality. I also greatly appreciate that Tamron has kept the same filter thread size across the board for all of its Sony mirrorless lenses. This allows me to reuse my filters which saves both weight as well as money.

PPD: Water is a feature in a lot of your work. What is it about water features that excites you visually?

TS: Water is such a versatile subject. I love the creative freedom you get by shooting water at different shutter speeds and then combining them to create a perfect composition using nothing but waves. Plus, I have general affinity for lakes, perhaps because I used to swim in them a lot when I was younger. There are so many compositions to be found and if photography doesn’t work out, you at least have a good time by the water.

PPD: How ruthless are you about editing before you show new work?

TS: I use Lightroom for cataloging my work and Photoshop for most of the editing. I am very meticulous when it comes to post processing. I take my inspiration from 19th century painters (largely the Hudson rivers school artists) and I try to add depth to my photos using the same principles followed by these masters.

I like to treat every single one of my photographs as if it were my next masterpiece. I try my best to bring out the most interesting element in the shots and convey the feelings I experienced while taking the shot. Even though a large portion of my work doesn’t go into print, I feel that this dedication to every shot I process helps me improve as a photographer.

PPD: Can you tell us about your one-on-one workshops?

TS: I started doing 1 on 1 workshops just before the pandemic hit (great timing!). I used to get requests for teaching people about how I plan, shoot and process my shots, and there’s only so much you put in writing. I love presenting to crowds, but I feel that landscape photography is more of an intimate art and cannot be experienced to the same extent with a crowd surrounding you. Hence, I decided to start with one-on-one workshops.

During my workshops, I want my students to understand why they want to practice landscape photography first, and then how to achieve that goal. Once you know what drives you and what kind of subject matter inspires you, it’s only technical challenges after that. I have even put together a chart about this on my website you can look at: https://tanmaysapkal.com/workshops

Tips:

PPD: Do you have any tips for selecting and scouting travel locations?

TS: You can approach this problem in two ways in my opinion:

First option is to identify what type of scene you want to shoot. If you have ideas about what elements you want to have in your shot, you can try to identify potential locations using google earth and through fellow photographers. This is especially useful for finding new locations to shoot locally (or at least in driving distance).

Second option is to find a place or destination you find interesting, and then identifying what type of shots you can find there. You would find varied opinions on this topic, but I personally prefer finding photographers local to that area and review their work from the region to gauge the potential of the location. For obvious reason, locals tend to have the greatest variety of work from an area, and it can give you an idea about what type of weather or season you can shoot the location in. This might help you plan your trips well in advance.
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To see more profiles, creative inspiration and tips from Tamron photographers you can download our free book here.

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