Q&A with Matthew Hahnel

February 18, 2016

Setting the stage: "My name is Matthew Hahnel and I am a 26 year old landscape, adventure and travel photographer based out of beautiful Boulder, Colorado. I moved here one year ago from Melbourne, Australia. I had traveled to the USA and Canada a few years in a row before moving out here and during those times fell in love with the diverse natural beauty that North America has to offer. I hope that through my work I can inspire others to get out and enjoy the majesty of our planet while doing their part in the conservation of our public lands."

What are your top 3 rules / ways to compose a shot?

I don't have any hard set rules when it comes to composition. Sure, there's the usual guidelines like the "rule of thirds", which generally is a good way to compose, but I don't want to constrain the way I shoot. When I get to an area I am planning to take photos of, I will walk around, camera in hand, and point it at my subject of focus (usually a large mountain, specific rock structure etc) from a variety of different heights, angles, vantage points and use whatever natural objects are around to see what possible ways there are to frame the subject. This is why I generally get to location at least an hour before I will be starting to shoot.

How do you adjust your aperture and shutter speed quickly / on the fly? 

This is something that comes with practice. When I started out, it took a lot of trial and error. I would just take one exposure and if it was too dark, keep making it lighter until it was right. Now it has become much more fluid and now I can look at a scene and have a good idea of what kind of shutter speed I will need. The meter in your camera generally gives you a good starting point, but it's definitely not something that should be trusted to be right 100% of the time. Use your eyes and the histogram.

How much weight does your histogram play - or is it mostly by feel?

I use the histogram a lot and it is a vital tool that I think every landscape photographer should take note of. I always want to make sure the highlights and the shadows are not clipping at either end because I do not want to lose any detail in the image. Luckily my camera (Nikon D800E) has excellent dynamic range, so I can often capture a scene in one exposure.. but for those times that I can't I will bracket to make sure I have exposures with both shadows and highlights correctly exposed to blend in later in post.

How much time do you typically spend on one image from start to finish (All the way from initial idea to capturing the image and post work)?

This varies so much that it's always incredibly hard for me to answer this question. Sometimes I had to spend hours looking at maps, trail reports, weather conditions etc before even going out to location. Sometimes I found a cool place on the internet and found where it was instantly. Sometimes I get out of my car and walk 100 yards to where I'll be shooting, sometimes I do multi-day backpacking trips to get the shot. 

Once I have the shot, the amount of time I spend on post also varies greatly depending on the platform that I will be displaying the image. If I think the image will be good enough to post on my website and include in my portfolio, it could take a few hours worth of editing. If I am just posting it on Instagram and not doing much else with it, it could take just 10 minutes of post work.

What's the most important thing in your bag (the one piece of gear you can't live without)?

The most important thing for me is a wide angle lens. I use two, a Nikon 16-35 f4 and Nikon 14-24 f2.8.  I mainly keep both around because I find the 14-24 incredibly difficult to keep water droplet free when shooting waterfalls or anything with spray like the ocean. The lens element is large, and there's something about the coating which makes it harder to keep clean. Sometimes you only have a split second between cleaning the lens and getting the shot before your lens is covered in spray again and I find it's just easier to get those shots on my 16-35.

Is there one thing you always do to prepare before going out to shoot?

Obviously safety is the most important thing. Being prepared for whatever conditions I may face in the field. My most shot subject are mountains, and conditions can get pretty wild. The last thing you want is to be stuck in a blizzard when you only packed a sweater. The same can be said for if you are shooting on rocks by the ocean. Always be aware of what the tide is doing before you go out and put yourself in a precarious situation.

What are your top 3 favorite places you've shot?

The three that stand out most to me are the Canadian Rockies, the Enchantments in Washington and Iceland. 

What is your favorite piece of gear in your bag?

I guess my camera would be my favorite piece of gear. Pretty hard to capture images without it. I shoot with a Nikon D800E and it has been through some pretty tough conditions. Still works like a champ.

What's your favorite thing to photograph?

My favorite subject to shoot is, no surprise, mountains. I've been drawn to them for a long time now, which is the main reason I moved from Australia to Colorado last year. To me there's nothing like standing on an overlook taking in an incredible mountain scene while the sun sets or rises.

What is/are your source(s) of photography inspiration?

I get a lot of inspiration from guys I find on Instagram. It's not the greatest platform for viewing photography as it's so small, but it's a very fast way to take in a lot of content. If I find a guy I really like, I can always follow his links back to his website and see the images in a larger format. 500px used to be THE place for me but it's gone so far down hill over the past couple of years that I don't visit a whole lot anymore.

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