This month we welcome Tony Kuyper as our guest photographer. Tony’s body of work centers around the desert sandstone of the Colorado Plateau and is as beautiful as it is definitive. In addition to his photography, Tony is well known to outdoor photographers for his skills in the realm of digital image developing, specifically in the use of luminosity mask techniques. His popular tutorials and Photoshop actions are well regarded by many of the best contemporary nature and landscape photographers. Tony is also one of the most kind, generous and humble people I know. I first became acquainted with Tony almost ten years ago and have since had the pleasure of getting to know him personally, spending time with him in the field and collaborating with him on Luminosity Mask instruction. Tony generally avoids the spotlight so I thank him for agreeing to this interview and giving us a view into his world.
Sean: Give us some biographic back story on Tony Kuyper.
Tony: My background is in the sciences. I got an “A” in Physical Chemistry in college! After getting my degree I moved to Arizona in the 1980s and have mostly been here since. I worked as a pharmacist for the Indian Health Service for 30 years.
Sean: When and how did you get your start in photography?
Tony: There really wasn’t a definitive start to it. It’s always been evolving. Arizona was a whole new world for me compared to the Midwest. I did a lot of hiking and camping trying to see it all. It’s natural, I think, to want to take pictures to hold onto some memories. But in the early days I was just using an instamatic camera. I eventually moved on to a 35 mm and even did a decade of large-format. So it’s really just a long continuum.
Sean: Your photography is centered in the American Southwest, primarily southern Utah and Northern Arizona. What about this landscape attracted you photographically and what keeps you coming back?
Tony: The initial attraction wasn’t photographic. The Colorado Plateau was just an incredible place. It was easy to fall in love with this landscape after living my first 24 years in Iowa. Photography was a way to interact with this place on a more personal level, and that eventually became more central to my travels around the area. Being in the desert feels right for me now, and that helps create a good mindset for taking pictures.
Sean: Your photography includes some wonderful large landscapes, but you are most known for your sandstone abstracts. Other than light, what are the most essential elements you look for when capturing this type of scene and what are you hoping viewers will take note of when viewing this body of work?
Tony: I tend to compose less complex scenes, so these images are in line with my general approach to nature photography. Many of these sandstone details are taken in the shadows, not direct light. In the shadows, the color of sandstone shifts considerably, depending on the source of reflected light. Only by getting in close and excluding direct sunlight can you really see what’s happening. The camera, especially in the film days, was critical to this. Our eyes naturally shift the colors to what we expect, but the camera is objective and helped me see sandstone’s alternate hues. The unexpected colors coupled with the amazing shapes and textures make for an interesting subject. So these abstracts are really just my way of exploring sandstone. Hopefully viewers will be able to see the beauty in this rock from a less traditional point of view.
Sean: To quote from your website you say, “Over the years, capturing light has become less and less my goal. Instead, I increasingly prefer to give in to the unpredictability of the situation and simply allow the light to capture me.” Tell us a little more about that statement.
Tony: I’ll say up front that Guy Tal had a big influence in developing this perspective. I photographed with him several times and was always impressed that any light was good light for him. He always came back with some amazing images. I came to understand it was not about approaching the landscape with preconceived notions of what would make a good picture, but rather to find a way to understand the area and eventually allow it to show me what it might have to offer in terms of light. Images created in this manner end up having deeper meaning. There’s something almost magical when I turn it all over to fate and find that it makes better choices than I do. It’s a new connection to something to I didn’t even know existed.
Sean: What does your standard camera rig consist of for most of your photographs?
Tony: Pretty minimal. Canon 5D2 camera, carbon fiber tripod, Tamron 28-300 lens, polarizer, and spare battery and compact flash cards.
Sean: Attention to image developing has long been an important component of your photography. What is your basic philosophy and approach to image developing?
Tony: Two things come to mind. First, connect with your image and let it tell you what to do. Each image is different and requires a unique approach. I find making actual prints to be extremely helpful in listening to the light. It’s much easier to interpret what the image needs when looking at a print than at the monitor for me. The second is to learn to use your tools and develop a skill set that is comfortable. Today’s cameras and Photoshop let us do some amazing things, but it takes some experimentation and practice with both to understand how to best use them. Other than that, I think photographers should be free to do what they want with their images. As David Kachel observed, a sense of realism is important to photography, but strict adherence to reality is not. So the whole process becomes one of interpreting light rather than simply reproducing it, and that opens up a lot of possibilities.
Sean: You are arguably the original and best known luminosity mask user and educator in the world of outdoor photography. Briefly, what are luminosity masks, how did you begin working with them and how is it that you discovered them for the rest of us?
Tony: Luminosity masks are selections based on tonal values in the image. They are created from the image’s pixel values, not from a selection tool. They can be manipulated to target specific tones and blend most adjustments perfectly into the rest the image. I Googled the term “luminosity mask” in April 2006, found out how to make the initial “Lights” selection, and was instantly fascinated with the possibilities. I knew about adding, subtracting, and intersecting selections and played with combining various masks somewhat randomly for several months to get at specific tones in my images. Based on these experiments, the Lights-, Darks-, and Midtones-series were developed for the “Luminosity Masks” tutorial published in November the same year.
Sean: Speaking to anyone not familiar with luminosity masks, what advantages do they have over other Photoshop adjustment methods?
Tony: The perfect blending that luminosity masks provide is probably the biggest benefit. While regular selections and brushes can be feathered spatially into the surrounding pixels to facilitate blending, luminosity selections are feathered tonally. This means that pixel content, specifically the brightness values, determines what gets blended, not just proximity to the selection edge. So as brightness varies across the image, the luminosity mask or selection will automatically adjust. The image is essentially its own mask. Photoshop makes it easy to manipulate the initial “Lights” mask to target different tones, so it’s possible to get this seamless blending in any tones you adjust. Sorry if that sounds a bit geeky, but that’s how it works. This perfect blending can be used to create very balanced lighting in the image. For nature photographers, it’s like to having studio lighting in the great outdoors.
Sean: Many of the talented outdoor photographers I’m familiar with today include luminosity mask techniques in their image developing skill set. When you first began experimenting with luminosity masks did you have any idea how important they would become to modern outdoor photography?
Tony: Not really. The scientist in me thought it was pretty neat what the different luminosity masks could do, so that’s why I wrote the tutorial, sort of like writing a research paper. However, it was my quirky way of using Photoshop and a bit complex at the time, so I didn’t think it would be widely adopted. The actions to make the masks were available right from the start and that probably helped others get on to using these techniques more quickly. But overall the interest in these techniques was definitely more than I expected.
Sean: In 2006 you published your first luminosity mask tutorials and Photoshop actions on NaturePhotographers.net. How have the actions, and the way that they are used, evolved since you first put them out there?
Tony: While the initial series of masks (Lights, Darks, Midtones) are useful, I quickly found that the narrower tonal range selections made from the primary Lights- and Darks-series to be more useful. These secondary masks became more important to me and I’ve developed tools to make them accessible. Something else quite unexpected is that I also use the Darks series of masks frequently in sharpening my images. They’re an effective way to reduce or remove light halos and over-sharpening while maintaining proper image sharpness.
Sean: The techniques and actions you introduced almost a decade ago have become a standard tool for outdoor photographers all over the world. Do you see them continuing to evolve and improve, and if so, how?
Tony: I think the basic knowledge about luminosity masks is becoming more widespread, but there is still some confusion about how to use them effectively. Deciding when use them, which mask to choose, and how to efficiently incorporate them into the workflow are some of the issues. Developing tools and educational materials to streamline luminosity mask integration will help more people adapt to them. It’s something I’m continuing to work on.
Sean: What piece of advice do you have for photographers interested in improving their image developing skills and realizing their creative potential?
Tony: I think the best way to improve at anything is to make it personal. For photography, that means having a genuine interest in the subjects you photograph. It’s easy to tune into the light and find images when you care about your subject. This also makes image development a creative exercise instead of a chore. If you’re personally committed to what you photograph, you’ll naturally work to improve your technique both in the field and at the computer. You’ll practice and study and find ways to get better.
Sean: Where do you see your interests in photography going in the future?
Tony: I recently moved to Tucson. It’s a whole new world to explore. Very different than the Colorado Plateau, but lots of variety. I’m going to have to branch out from sandstone, but am definitely looking forward experiencing light in a new place.
Sean is an outdoor photographer, digital image developing enthusiast and photography educator based in Ashland, Oregon, where he resides with his wife and two sons. His previous career as a science teacher makes photography education a good fit. Sean teams up with fellow Photo Cascadia members leading workshops. He also teaches digital image developing classes, lectures and offers a series of Photoshop video tutorials.