His photos of summer fog in California and the Northern Lights in Scandinavia have made Lorenzo Montezemolo a favourite on social media image-sharing sites. He shares his story with Keith Wilson…
Landscape supremo Lorenzo Montezemolo discusses the shots that helped put him on the map
On 17 August last year, Lorenzo Montezemolo made a long-exposure image of wave-like fog creeping over the forested hills of Marin County in California. After he posted the image, Fog Fingers (previous page), on his Flickr page, it went viral, and it has since been published on the front pages of Reddit, PetaPixel,
BoredPanda, BoingBoing and even The Washington Post. But this sudden wave of popularity and social media attention has not gone to his head – photography may be Lorenzo’s passion, but it remains very much a hobby…
You live in a very picturesque part of the United States. What is the area like and what possibilities does it offer for your photography?
I live in northern California, about 30 miles south of San Francisco – which is really beautiful itself – and I’m within an hour of Marin County, where I spent a lot of my time last year shooting fog up in the hills. Within an hour Ican also reach the coast, where I have this rocky coastline that is beautiful to drive along and take pictures of. A few hours in the other direction I have the Sierra Nevada Mountains where you can find Yosemite National Park, King’s Canyon, Mono Lake, Lake Tahoe, places like that. I’m really blessed to have all of these different kinds of climates and subjects really close by and so accessible.
You mention Marin County and the pictures of low-lying fog that you’ve taken there. Is this a theme you are still pursuing?
It is. Over the last few years I have connected with some photographers who live up in Marin County; it’s about an hour and a quarter from my house, so it’s not difficult to go there, and two summers ago I sort of got hooked on the fog, which is a more prevalent phenomenon during the summer months. I went out shooting four or five times in summer 2015 chasing the fog, and then this past summer – and August in particular – was just amazing for fog. I don’t know what happened with the atmosphere, but it was just a really incredible month.
We had a great swirl of fog almost every day. In August I think I shot 25 days out of 31 up in Marin County, and I have thousands and thousands of these amazing long exposures.
Since I started shooting up there on a regular basis, it has really become my favourite shooting location, even though the fog has dissipated a little now. I still manage to get together with the same folks on a weekly basis, mostly on weekends. That’s how I got into shooting up there originally, and it was the fog that drew me up again and again, and got me hooked.
Has it taught you about how to read a weather forecast and know what type of conditions to expect?
Absolutely. I have a whole page of bookmarks in my internet browser which are dedicated to our local weather. Ihave a fog forecast and profiler that give some idea of how high the fog will be, and all kinds of other radar and sonar readings for the weather.
Sounds like a lot of detail?
Yeah, getting into this involved a little bit of a crash course in meteorology!
How did your interest in landscape photography begin?
Well, there were a couple of factors that came together. One of these is my general interest in photography that got re-sparked about 10 years ago when I got my first digital SLR camera. I had done photography when I was younger, in high school, then I took a 15-year break from it after high school, when I went to college and started working.
You got a proper job, you mean?
I did, and I still have one! Then a family friend bought a Nikon D70. Up until then I had been really sceptical about the quality of digital cameras, but Iwas really impressed by what came out of his camera, so I went off and bought myself one and started taking pictures non-stop. With digital, that immediate satisfaction of seeing the photo on the back of the camera really helped me to improve my skills rapidly – I was able to immediately see what I liked and what I didn’t like. Also, I think living here in California, with all of these beautiful landscapes and seascapes surrounding me, made it hard to resist.
Did you have a mentor, or was there someone’s work that particularly inspired you?
I wasn’t influenced by anyone out in the mainstream photography world, no, but I did get heavily involved with Flickr. I started following some folks on there who Iwas really impressed by, but there was nobody well known outside of the social media, internet world who inspired me. I encountered most people through social media and photo sharing, but Flickr was where
One of the most critical things that a lot of people overlook in long-exposure photography is the sturdiness of their tripod
I got a lot of my inspiration early on. I spent a lot of time posting photos there, commenting on photos and getting feedback. I also met people in real life from there and went out shooting with them. These things all helped me to improve my technique and my eye for composition.
Have any of those working relationships continued to this day, or have other platforms evolved for you?
I have transitioned over to concentrating more on Instagram recently, on building relationships from there. One of the things I really love about Instagram is how strong a local community we have here in the San Francisco area. Instagram is big throughout the world, but in the San Francisco area there are so many people who are on it, so many talented photographers and artists. And there are meet-ups, Instameets, things like that, so being part of that gives me the ability to get out and be face-to-face with photographers, shoot alongside them, discuss techniques and gear. The relationships I built through Flickr are still vibrant, but I have now moved my focus towards Instagram.
One noticeable quality to your work is the degree of front-to-back sharpness. What do you do to maximise this in your photos?
Well, there are a couple of things. I think that one of the most critical things that a lot of people overlook, particularly when doing long-exposure photography, is the sturdiness of their tripod. About four years ago I ditched my aluminium tripod and picked up a really solid carbon fibre tripod. I think even within the non-carbon fibre world it would be considered heavy, but it is incredibly sturdy, very wind- and vibration-resistant, and that’s a very critical component for me.
I also use the correct aperture. Generally, shooting between f/8 and f/11 tends to work out fairly well. I focus on something that’s about one third of the way between me and the back of the scene, and then I check my work afterwards. After I take the shot I look at it on the back of the camera
and magnify it to make sure that both the foreground and background are as sharp as I like them to be. If they’re not, I make adjustments and re-shoot.
What about focus-stacking?
I don’t do any focus stacking, though I know people use this technique. There are some shots where I think it could be beneficial, but I haven’t used it and prefer to do everything in-camera. It’s just easier that way, and there’s less editing required for a natural look if you do as much as you can in-camera.
What typical editing and processing will you do?
The bulk of my editing and processing of images I do in Adobe Lightroom, but I do also use Photoshop sometimes. If I’m going to use some luminosity masking, for example to make an image pop a little bit or to target certain areas of the image, Imight do that in Photoshop.
I have a couple of other tools I use from the Nik collection too – there’s a program called Viveza, which enables you to add pop to your photos, or intensify them and sharpen them up a little bit. I’ve used that on quite a few of my photos – the more vibrant ones. But 90 per cent of the editing I do is in Lightroom.
What about dynamic range? How do you get the finished result in those instances?
Well, I have to say that this is an area where the technology has helped the art form, because I now shoot with a D810, and my back-up camera is a D800, and the dynamic range on those models is just incredible. I can almost just expose for the highlights, shoot, then bring up my shadows and dark areas. The dynamic range is so incredible on those cameras that you can almost pull it off in a single shot.
There are a few situations where the sun is just too bright, so the difference between the brights and shadows is too much for the camera to overcome. In that case I sometimes do some exposure blending, but it’s very rare. I’m more likely to pull out my neutral density filters and use those to even out the light in a scene. Because the D800-series cameras have such a wide dynamic range, I don’t need to put a huge three-stop neutral density filter on; usually a couple of stops is enough to get the image to where I need it, to edit it without having to do any kind of exposure blending.
I will say that my photos from New Zealand [on my website] were from a time when I was doing a lot of HDR photography. In New Zealand I went on a workshop on landscape photography with a gentleman called Trey Ratcliff, who’s from the US, but who’s been living in New Zealand for the last four or five years. He was one of the people behind the rise of HDR photography, so a lot of my New Zealand photos are HDR-blended.
What do you take with you on a typical day’s shoot?
I generally take one camera body with me, unless I’m travelling overseas specifically for photography, in which case I will take both of my bodies.
But if I’m going out for the day I’ll take my D810 and three lenses – primarily for landscapes I have the Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, the Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 and then for really wide-angle shots I use the Nikon
Photography is a hobby. In recent years it’s actually begun to pay for itself, but it’s not my goal to turn this into my primary work
14-24mm f/2.8. That’s my main kit, and of course my tripod and my neutral density filters.
Which make of ND filters?
I use a mixture. I have two Lee neutral density filters – a 6-stop and a 10-stop – and I have a bunch of Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filters, and a Formatt-Hitech Firecrest 10-stop filter that Ihave been using a lot in a transition away from my Lee Filters 10-stop, because it doesn’t leave a colour cast like the Lee filter does.
Were you using Nikon kit back in your film days too?
I may be ageing myself, but my first camera was a Miranda, and then in high school I inherited Minolta gear from an uncle of mine. When I was in college I got away from photography for a while. Then before going digital, I did buy a Nikon film camera for a trip I was taking. So I went with Nikon on the digital side because I had some lenses already. I’m very happy with my Nikon kit.
Where are your favourite overseas locations to shoot?
First and foremost, I’d say northern Norway. The Lofoten Islands [pictured above] are definitely a favourite place of mine. I’ve been there twice now, and I’m planning my third trip there this coming February. The landscape there is stunning, and I have caught the Northern Lights bug too, so every year I’ve tried to go back to spend at least a week in the winter months chasing the Northern Lights.
I really enjoyed Iceland too. I went there a couple of years ago on a short trip and I would definitely like to go back in the next year or two.
And New Zealand. I went there three years ago and absolutely loved it. That’s certainly on my radar in the next year or two as well; returning to the South Island of New Zealand.
You’ve gone on the record as saying you want to keep your photography as a hobby rather than as a profession. Why is this?
Well, I think that to be successful in photography as a business you really have to be focused on the business side of things. I think it can turn out to be a lot less about the photography and a lot more about the marketing and the sales. Quite honestly, that’s an area of very little interest to me, and I’m not very good at it.
The truth is it’s hard to make a good living at photography, so I have a day job, a profession I’ve been in for the last 20 years, and that is what provides my main income. Photography is a hobby. In recent years it’s actually begun to pay for itself, which is nice, but it’s not my goal to turn this into my primary work.
So what is your day job?
I’m a computer network engineer, so I manage the computer network for an insurance company that’s based here in San Francisco.
All of your prints are for sale – do you have any best sellers?
The photo that has been very popular in the last few months is the one that I took in August of the fog creeping over a ridge in Marin County [main image, page 90]. It ended up being picked up on social media and going viral. In particular it’s been very popular with people who live in that area, who live in the fog all summer long. They are
happy to finally have a beautiful representation of it from above!
I should also mention that one other source of income for me from my photography is licensing. That’s actually made me more money than selling prints has. I work with Getty images, and a particularly popular image is a shot of Venice with this gondolier in front of one of the big churches [called When in Venice – see link below]. That’s really popular on the licensing side.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d pass on to someone who is just starting out?
There’s a combination of things that helped me out. For me, getting online and interacting with photographers helped. Initially it was with Flickr, more recently it’s been through Instagram, but definitely interacting with other people, getting their feedback, getting some inspiration from them, learning about new locations and techniques boosted my photography a lot. So interact with people online and in real life! Going to photo meet-ups is great. I’ve got in with this group of people who I shoot with regularly because they were big on Google+ and I met them through there.
Also, get educated. There are a lot of tutorials online and in magazines for learning different shooting and editing techniques. Attending in-person workshops is great too. You’re standing there with someone who is very familiar with the area and they’re probably more skilled than you are and you get some great knowledge and experience through that.
swirl tide, Malibu, California, USA Nikon D800, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8, 0.4 secs, f/10, ISO 50
Sizzle, Woodside, California, USA Nikon D800, Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8, 61 secs, f/5.6, ISO 50
Aurora Swirlealis, Hamnøya, Norway Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, 30 secs, f/5.6, ISO 400
heksehatt, Lofoten Islands, Norway Nikon D800, Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8, 131 secs, f/11, ISO 400