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Off The Beaten Path

Third-generation landscape photographer Marc Muench talks about his career, his latest book and what drives him

The driving force behind Marc Muench’s photographs is always the landscape. Having explored countless locations across the United States and around the globe, the Santa Barbara, Calif., native still finds himself mostly drawn to Santa Barbara County and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. His love of places was instilled in him at a very young age when his father, acclaimed photographer David Muench, would take him on trips to discover unknown areas and document landscapes that had been rarely, if ever, seen before. Above: Bristlecone tree stump, White Mountains, Inyo National Forest, California. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Nikkor 16mm ƒ/2.8, Slik Pro 614 CF tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-30 ballhead

When Marc Muench was a kid, he and his family spent their summers on the road. But instead of visiting a touristy amusement park, they ended up in places like an ancient bristlecone forest where he would watch his father do something he saw countless times throughout his childhood. After stopping the car, they would meander off some country road. Eventually, his dad would put down his camera bag, set up the tripod, pull out his field camera, choose a lens and begin taking pictures. While he didn’t know it at the time, watching his father work would have a lasting impact, as years later Marc would decide to pick up a camera and make his own living as a photographer.

Going on camping or photo trips for months at a time to hike and look for places with his father was INSTRUMENTAL IN MARC’S DEVELOPMENT AS A PHOTOGRAPHER because it led to him becoming very comfortable in the outdoors. In the book, he says those experiences gave him “opportunities for unconscious observation.”

Sailor Lake, John Muir Wilderness, Sierra Nevada Mountains, California. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5 L, Slik Pro 614 CF tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-30 ballhead

Marc is a third-generation landscape photographer. Along with his father, David Muench, and grandfather, Josef Muench, their last name has become synonymous with color landscape photography. The eldest Muench was a photographer for Arizona Highways, a job he picked up after his photographs of Rainbow Bridge National Monument, the world’s largest known natural bridge in Utah, were published in the magazine. He worked there for more than 50 years. David Muench, also an OP columnist, became known for his use of prominent foreground elements that lead the viewer’s eye through the frame to the background in the distance. With a 4×5 film collection that at one point consisted of a million individual transparencies, David’s work is everywhere in the world of nature photography.

So it’s quite a legacy that the youngest Muench was born into and has managed to emerge from as one of the top landscape photographers working today with a style all his own. His latest book, Exploring North American Landscapes: Visions and Lessons in Digital Photography, puts some of the stunning photographs he has taken over the years on display. From his much-loved Sierra Nevada Mountains in California to the red rock country in southern Utah, the first part of the book is inspirational, with Marc telling stories from his life on the road and capturing different places, as well as those of his father and grandfather.

Sunrise over Dick Smith Wilderness, Santa Barbara County, California. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8, Slik Pro 614 CF tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-30 ballhead

For the Muenches, traveling around the country to discover and photograph little-known locations is very much in keeping with family tradition. Going on camping or photo trips for months at a time to hike and look for places with his father was instrumental in Marc’s development as a photographer because it led to him becoming very comfortable in the outdoors. In the book, he says those experiences gave him “opportunities for unconscious observation.” He was included in his father’s pursuit of photography, just as his father had been before him by his grandfather.

Stopping the car to wander off the side of the road often resulted in stumbling upon some unfamiliar majestic place like Tear Drop Arch in Monument Valley, Utah. Now iconic and one of his father’s most published photographs, when they came across the teardrop-shaped sandstone formation that frames a view of distant buttes, they just sort of found it.

“He had an itinerary of places he wanted to photograph,” Marc recalls. “During breaks we went looking for things that might be interesting, and we just kind of stumbled upon it. He always liked arches so we looked for those. We just walked up to it. It really was a subtle experience. I didn’t know how subtle it was until later.”

Gates of the Valley in moonlight, Yosemite National Park, California.Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 24mm ƒ/1.4 II, Really Right Stuff tripod with BH-40 ballhead

An understated moment, perhaps, but it’s also one of those flashes that when Marc looks back on how his career unfolded, he points to it as an experience that helped shape his drive to become a photographer. He shoots today with the same motivation as he did 20 years ago when he was fresh out of the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and looking to make his mark.

Like his grandfather and father before him, Marc’s inspiration to shoot is driven by places. At the start of his career, his focus was on photographing sports such as skiing, surfing and rock climbing. But his interest wasn’t in taking close-up shots of athletes; rather, he wanted to show how the person, in this case an athlete, interacted with the landscape. Later, when he realized that photographing sports would be difficult to do all of the time, he started mixing it up with landscapes.

While in school and later as a sports photographer, Marc didn’t give much thought to his family legacy because he was doing something different. When he started shooting landscapes, he and his father often would submit to the same assignments so he was motivated by the place, but also to make an image that would be acceptable next to one of David Muench’s transparencies.

I always tell people to incorporate TWO OR THREE OR MORE THINGS BEYOND JUST THE LANDSCAPE that will motivate the viewer.

“The fact that he allowed me to do that is remarkable because of how competitive this industry is,” says Marc. “As a landscape photographer, you’re always putting yourself on the line and you want your photo chosen. I knew I needed something that could stand up next to him.”

Marc Muench’s latest book is called
Exploring North American Landscapes: Visions and Lessons in Digital Photography. The first part is inspirational while the second half delves into the more technical aspects of shooting a great photograph. Above: The Three Gossips are shown on the left at sunrise, Arches National Park, Utah. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon TS-E 24mm ƒ/3.5 L, Slik Pro 614 CF tripod, Really Right Stuff BH-30 ballhead

In the book, Marc recalls a conversation with David in which he was describing places that he would go to with Josef, rattling off names like Hunts Mesa, Rainbow Bridge, Capitol Reef and Monument Valley. The photograph David took of Hunts Mesa made it into his recent collection of 200 images. When Marc first visited Hunts Mesa with a camera in hand, his experience was reminiscent of what Josef and David had done. While he had already visited many of the same locations they had photographed, Hunts Mesa left him with a different feeling. In the book, he says he “could feel a calling to the place like no other.” For some unknown reason, Marc decided to take an 8×10 with him on the trip, something he’d done only a few other times because of how bulky the camera was to carry around. Although he had visited plenty of places that his grandfather and father had photographed before, this one left him with a special sense of familiarity even though it was his first time to the area.

In creating images, Marc is always looking for what’s going to make viewers connect to his photographs. When asked how he would describe his work to someone who has never seen any of it, he says that “sophisticated” is the word he hopes others would use, but not in any kind of elitist or haughty way. “In the sense that there’s something more to look at and that keeps you captivated for longer than just the first two minutes of looking at a scene,” he explains. “I always tell people to incorporate two or three or more things beyond just the landscape that will motivate the viewer.”

Sunset at Gaviota Coast, Santa Barbara County, California. Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III, Canon TS-E 17mm ƒ/4 L, Really Right Stuff tripod with BH-40 ballhead

The second part of the book is divided into eight lessons designed to help readers understand how Marc creates images that are so technically strong and emotionally appealing. Basics such as lighting and digital workflow are covered along with details on panoramic images and HDR. The lessons are laid out in logical, step-by-step fashion. They’re easy to follow, understand and apply. For Marc, the most challenging part of postproduction work may be how quickly software changes these days and the effort to stay on top of it. Just since the book came out, he has switched from using Bridge for his editing work to Lightroom. He says the databases in Lightroom make it easier to find and access images.

Marc’s reasons for doing the book stemmed from the many friends and workshop attendees who kept hounding him to write down all of his wisdom and experiences. How-to books are challenging to do well, but many top photographers, including the late Ansel Adams, do them because they feel strongly about sharing what they know about taking great photographs with others. In the digital age, the task is even tougher because technology changes so quickly, and that, in turn, alters how images are produced from capture to print.

As far as influences outside of his family, Marc credits Galen Rowell and his work in the Himalayas as inspiring him to shoot mountaineering, Chris Noble’s skiing and snowboarding work, and Ansel Adams for the amount of time he took to create exceptional imagery. A few portrait photographers have influenced him, as well. With landscape photography, it often seems like everywhere worth shooting has been, and repeatedly. But this doesn’t mean there’s nowhere left to document.

“If you fly over just one part of this continent, you realize how much land there is and how many little places are out there yet to be discovered,” says Marc. “Once you get outside of Yosemite and Monument Valley, there’s a plethora of places. And it can be as simple as getting out, turning a corner, and all of a sudden you’re staring at some amazing rock formation. Fly from Seattle to Alaska, and there’s nothing but island after island, fjord after fjord.”

These days, making a living in this industry is a challenge, to say the least. But Marc encourages anyone with the drive and the willingness to fully commit to get out there and do it. He says that becoming successful as a landscape photographer comes down to sheer volume.

“It’s really a numbers game,” says Marc. “If you take a great landscape, it could win a landscape photo contest and you’d get fame and acknowledgement. But there aren’t companies that are going to do that for you because it’s landscape. You have to go and photograph thousands of those. One is not enough. Ten is not enough. Hundreds are not enough. You have to be very productive. It all comes down to how much you love it. It really is like golf. This gets forgotten. How much time do you practice? Landscape photography, as a business, requires you to be out there a lot.”

Marc Muench has been a professional landscape and sports photographer for more than 20 years. His photographs have appeared in TIME, National Geographic, Ski, Skiing, Sunset, Outside and Sierra Magazine, among other publications, and like his grandfather, in Arizona Highways. See more of Muench’s work at