US photographer Ryan Stout grew up in picturesque Montana. A software developer who works from home by day, Ryan decided that he needed a hobby to get him out of the house in the evenings. But going out in the dark and taking photos probably isn’t the first thing that would come to most people’s minds. He says “I had seen some amazing night photos online; so, I started researching what was involved. I ended up buying a used Canon 5d mkII and immediately fell in love with night photography”.
Having owned a Canon Rebel a decade earlier, the hobby hadn’t stuck and it wasn’t until he got into night photography that he really started to learn the craft. In his own words “the technical side of me really enjoyed the challenges that come with night photography”.
But as days grew longer and it started to stay light later into the evening, he started taking photos at sunset and his photography passion grew more and more from there.
He says “night photography was really a stepping stone. At night, a lot of things are really hard (partly because you’re up so late your brain isn’t at 100%). But the one thing that you don’t have to worry about is light. If the sky is clear, you can usually capture a good photo.”
But going from photographing at night to day can be complicated. So much so that he says “when I transitioned to day photography, it took me a while to learn what to look for in a good shot. Since I can’t make it out every sunrise/sunset, I’ve worked hard to be able to read the weather and skies to predict good conditions.”
But even Montana’s amazing landscape wasn’t enough for him and he began to travel elsewhere to test out his skills.
Ryan, where are you from?
I grew up in Montana. It seems like most landscape photographers had an obsession with the outdoors since they were young, but for most of my life I was.. lets say.. “indoorsy”.
Where do you currently live?
I’m currently living in Bozeman, Montana.
What genre of photography do you specialise in?
Landscape photography, with an over-representation of night photography
Describe your style of photography?
I think starting with night photography really influenced my style. In a lot of areas, milky way photos end up slightly washed out. Montana however has so little light pollution, the milky way photos end up with tons of saturation and color. When I jumped to taking day photos, I brought some of that same search for color with me (it also helps that Montana gets some great sunsets).
Unlike a lot of photographers, for me composition is really hard and the technical side comes somewhat easily. To make my photos stand out a bit, I tend to look for scenes that are a technical challenge to capture.
I’m also more time constrained than many photographers, so I usually do quite a bit of research on locations before I get there.
What are you working on at the moment?
I really enjoy hobbies. For me the process of learning to do something well is part of the fun. But I was really surprised how long it took me to get to where I was happy with the photos I was taking. I would try to get my friends into photography, but most of them would give up after a month or two. I think the main issue for most people is the learning curve. Capturing a great moment on a DSLR/mirrorless camera is a pretty complex process.
Since I’m a software developer with a background in machine learning, I started working on a tool to help people get better photos faster. The device is called Arsenal. It sits on your camera’s hotshoe and lets you control your camera from your phone. It basically has two sets of features.
First it uses machine learning to help you get better photos. Arsenal’s trained on thousands of high rated photos, and is able to recognize a scene and suggest settings that have worked well in similar situations. It also looks at 18 environmental factors to adjust those settings to the constraints of the current conditions.
Second, it provides tools that helps with things like focusing, photo stacking, and photo review. Arsenal can automatically take the right number of photos to do exposure bracketing, focus stacking, or average stacking (to simulate a long exposure without filters). It then merges the photos on the device and writes the new RAW file back to the camera’s SD card.
It’s been a long project and a ton of work, but so far people really love it. Arsenal launched on Kickstarter on the 24th May and has already surpassed the goal! To find out more visit Arsenal Kickstarter.
What is your next project or assignment?
Arsenal’s pretty much my full time job at this point. Since the Kickstarter campaign has gone so well, I’ll be working hard for the next six months making sure the first production run goes well.
Are there any photographers whose work/style you admire?
Mark Gee and Michael Shainblum both influenced me quite a bit in my early days. At that time, few people were taking photos at night that were sharp and mostly noise free. Michael also has a way with composition. He can create an image that can make anyone go “wow.” I think they both have the same “search for color” that I have.
What is your favourite memory from your experiences?
There’s a lake about forty-five minutes from my house that makes a great backdrop for milky way shots. Last May I took a friend up there for his first night photography session. I’ve shot this lake a lot, but I knew before I got there the conditions on this night were going to be good. The real trick to milky way photography is going on the right night. There’s only a few days a year when the conditions align (seeing, transparency, and cloud cover) to produce really detailed milky way images. This night was one of those nights.
My friend who went with me was shooting with a D750 and borrowed a few of my lenses. Normally the lake is low and you have your pick of photo spots. This time, the lake was flooded when we got there. There were picnic tables that were under water and all of my normal spots were gone. So, we walked through the woods until we finally found the only spot where you could see to the south. A small “nub” about 2 x 2.
We spent most of the night crammed on the tiny spot. My friend got his feet wet and I think he was about to freeze to death. In the end though, it was an amazing experience. The water was so still it made a perfect reflection of the milky way. A year later, it’s still my favorite shot.
What’s the biggest photographic challenge you overcame?
Composition is not a skill that comes naturally to me. My wife knows very little about cameras, but she has natural skill when it comes to composition. For me, I need the rules. Over the past few years I’ve been slowly training my brain to recognize compositions.
What’s in your camera bag?
I do a lot of timelapse, so I almost always bring two cameras with me. I’ll usually set up a timelapse when I get somewhere, then explore an area nearby while the timelapse runs.
View my timelapse here
Currently I’m shooting with a Nikon d810 and Sony A7RII. Both of those cameras are overkill for daytime photography, so I might be switching things up soon. I tend to buy and sell lenses quite a bit. At the moment, I’ve been shooting a lot with the Nikon 20mm 1.8g.
What photographic equipment would you never leave home without?
OK, I’m a bit biased, but Arsenal has really upped my game. Besides that, I’m going to have to say my iPhone. There’s a few photography apps I use that I’m always checking. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is the main one. Its sunset prediction isn’t 100%, but I find myself using that info a lot when I’m deciding where to go.
What advice you would give anyone who is starting out?
There’s a weird line between a good photo and a great one. There’s lots of elements that go into a photo (composition, light, atmosphere, sharpness, detail, blur, etc..). For a long time, I assumed if I could get one of those attributes to be a “10”, I would have a great photo. So, I would look for great compositions, or try to find good light, or try to get everything really sharp. In truth, great photos are more than the sum of their parts. Instead of trying to make a single element a “10”, try to get everything above a “6”. You’ll end up with a much better photo.
The easiest way to do this is to find a good composition, then keep coming back until you can get good light. Part of the trick is finding good compositions near where you live, or doing a longer trip somewhere. Also, try to shoot during the golden hour.
Any pitfalls they should avoid?
This might seem a bit hypocritical, since I have a d810 and A7RII, and maybe a bit self-serving since I’m working on Arsenal; but I would say that it’s easy to spend too much time worrying about cameras and lenses, and not enough worrying about technique.
Also, I would say try to embrace constraints. Some of my best shots have come when I thought the conditions were terrible, or where I didn’t have time to drive far from my house. The trick is to understand the constraints you have and try to do something different.
Lastly… if you weren’t a photographer what would you be doing?
Since photography isn’t my day job, this is an easy one. I’ve been doing computer programming since I was a kid, and it sounds cheesy to say, but I honestly love it. Bringing a product to life is really rewarding in this strange way.
To find out more about Ryan’s new photography assistant invention called Arsenal click here.
All images by Ryan Stout using Arsenal. All rights reserved. No usage without permission.
Interview by Kav Dadfar.