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The More Things Change…

Although his techniques and tools evolve, Edgar Callaert’s drive to explore the American landscape remains constant

Washo Reserve, Nature Conservancy Santee Coastal Reserve, McClellanville, S.C.

As a young boy, Edgar Callaert’s family traveled constantly. He had lived on three continents by the age of nine, and he never resided anywhere for more than three years before he settled down in Mill Valley, Calif., a few decades ago. Since then, his suburban San Francisco location has served not only as a home base for a few long photo trips each year, but also as an ideal place for exploration.

“I got to Marin County and never left,” he says. “It’s a natural paradise so close to so many more. It’s so beautiful and has such a diverse landscape, it’s easy to keep the creative juices flowing—rain forests, crashing waves and parched golden hills all within about 20 miles of each other. Sometimes it’s a sensory overload, but there’s enough monotonous office work and Photoshop time to balance it all out.”

Sunset, Bolinas Ridge, Mount Tamalpais State Park, Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Marin County, Calif.

Callaert says his early travel instilled his wanderlust. Wherever he lived, there always was one reassuring constant: nature.

“Being comfortable early in life with many different settings and with a wide range of people made it all easy and rewarding, and still does,” he explains. “Always being the new kid on the block makes you independent and self-reliant. These are very useful traits for my extensive trips. I still do about three long four- to six-week trips a year to whatever spot sounds good. It’s like Steve McQueen said: ‘I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.'”

Callaert has seen the world, but it’s the western United States he holds closest to heart. Rather than confess to one favorite locale, though, he says he has developed preferences instead for favorite types of terrain and landscape elements.

“The features that draw me most,” he says, “are when combinations exist—diverse elements in one scene, things that tie a place together and give it dimension—when things are more than the sum of their parts, when a bit of good luck adds to it all. Lucky fog banks, calm lakes that produce perfect reflections, unpredictable sun rays in the right place.

“I also look for some dynamic,” Callaert adds. “Movement, tension, curvature—a flow. What I want more than anything is an image I can’t go back and reproduce. I want it to have a uniqueness, a one-time-only feel. I actually do look for that ‘one-in-a-million’ image, but it’s so rare. I think I make photographs more for myself to capture these moments and to be able to relive them. Sometimes long Photoshop sessions become reveries.”

An image of rolling hills and wildflowers represents this extraordinary good fortune for Callaert, as the light changed literally by the second. Only through a combination of dogged perseverance, preparation and good luck are images like this possible.

Wildcat Beach, Phillip Burton Wilderness, Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County, Calif.

“It was on the third year back to this location that it was good,” he says, “and then for only one exposure as the clouds were flying by. I’ll never repeat the mottled cloud lighting. It’s totally unique. There always seems to be an element of good fortune that helps the hard work of planning and waiting. I do repeat visits a lot. It’s a balancing act at times to avoid getting stale, but it can be a huge payoff in the sense that knowing a place intimately really sharpens the senses and the vision. Desire and determination cannot be underrated.

“As I look through these images,” Callaert continues, “what stands out as the common thread is how much they’re products of long scouting missions, repeat visits, waiting for the right light or weather, or finding the right moment in the right season where it all comes together, and for that sun to finally appear after doing this for three days.

“Whether it’s the mountains, the desert or the coast,” he says, “they’re all fascinating to me when I immerse myself. It’s the involvement, the concentration on the surroundings, the getting away from the comfort zone of routine that makes all the difference. When it gets down to it, it’s being out in large, open, impressive places that’s the real motivator. Photography comes from that. In some ways, it’s secondary. The key is to pick the terrain, be it desert or mountains, at the prime time for the place. Maybe it’s the spring bloom in Arizona or fall in the Eastern Sierra, summer in the high elevations when flowers are out and lakes are full. I think the fact that I’ve lived on the coast and done so much exploring there says that’s where my heart lies. I just love Big Sur and have a ton of stuff from there.”

Callaert’s rich portfolio also reveals his preference for the coast, as well as another spot he admits to admiring especially: the Eastern Sierra. It’s because these places offer a perfect combination of diversity and drama, as well as the opportunity to explore remote terrain.

La Crosse Pass, Mount Anderson, Olympic National Park, Wash.

“Both Big Sur and the Eastern Sierra are rugged, varied and visually stunning,” he says, “rocky outcrops, sheer cliffs, wildflower gardens. The Sierra has more dramatic and varied weather and fall color, while Big Sur offers the thrill—and danger—of the crashing waves. When I’m out there, I’m looking for emotion and dramatics. I often have to settle for less, but you have to set your sights high.

“Another aspect is the ease and freedom of camping in these areas,” Callaert adds. “I’m out for a long time, and paying for campsites is out. I dislike them—noisy, dirty, crowded, away from my goals. The Sierra is wide open and free almost everywhere, and this is important in creating a comfortable environment for exploring.”

Such subtle financial considerations aren’t to be underestimated. For 25 years, Callaert explored mountains and deserts and coastlines with a heavy 4×5 film camera in tow, but just last fall he began a conversion to digital capture as the costs of film and processing had become too high, while the benefits and quality of digital SLRs skyrocketed.

“I felt a very conscious connection between pushing the shutter and spending money,” he says, “and it made me very selective, very diligent. All in all, I think this worked to my benefit. It hones your sense of sight, judgment and visualization of the final image. For a long time it was about $2 per sheet and $1.20 to process. This has gone up in only the last two years to $2.50 per sheet and over $4 to process. That’s $14 for every picture as I always do two exposures. I spent last October in the Sierra, was quite selective in my shooting and then spent $700 to process the stuff! That was it. I knew this had to change.”

Autumn, Japanese maple, Fern Canyon, Mill Valley, Calif.

The change was to a Nikon D700, which made traveling lighter and exposures much less expensive. But it’s the creative revitalization, Callaert says, that’s the real benefit.

“After I got this setup,” he says, “it just seems like all this pent-up energy is starting to emerge. It’s still quite new and very exciting. I feel a real resurgence of my creative energy with the new equipment. Big weight advantages that will enhance backpacking are a big bonus, too. I’ve never been a Luddite about tech stuff; it has always been a practical and financial situation that has slowed things down. One of the lucky things about having to wait to buy into new technology is that by the time I get to it, a lot of the kinks are worked out and the obsolescence factor is way less. I have hopes that the D700 will be good for quite a while. I’ve gotten so much juice from this; it’s like I’m a kid again. It’s like a whole new start.”

Twenty-five years of shooting large format instills a certain ethic in a photographer, and Callaert still works with the small DSLR as he did with the bulkier 4×5.

“In some ways, it’s not a big change,” he says. “Creating a special image is still what it’s about, and digital capture is just another way of recording the scene. I don’t need to blow through a large number of frames because I’ve learned, I hope, to weed out the mediocre compositions early on. A special image is still the only thing I’m after. I don’t really care how I record it. My work will stay the same in terms of saturation and color controls because accurate representation of the natural world is what I look for.”

Indian rhubarb, Merced River, Yosemite National Park, Calif.

For Callaert, the big change in workflow wasn’t last fall’s changeover to a DSLR, but rather when Adobe Photoshop worked its way into his process years ago.

“I think Photoshop was the real game-changer,” he says. “I can now reproduce my good images easily, whether it’s a scanned transparency or a RAW capture, and have great leeway to correct the mistakes and problems. I couldn’t do that back when there were only film and dupes. Cropping, shadow/highlight, exposure and color correction are so easy that I’ve been able to salvage many previously unusable images from past years. I went overboard with warming filters for a while and had all this yellowy-looking stuff around that I can now correct. The practical upshot of this on my work is that I now rarely use filters of any kind, with the resultant better image quality from using less glass.”

Adds Callaert, “One of the real downsides of Photoshop is its misuse by many people who create these out-of-touch, cartoonish, oversaturated images that have colors and contrasts that don’t exist in nature. The HDR programs are particularly susceptible to exaggeration. Some images are just silly; they don’t look like planet Earth. I feel that if your first instinct on seeing an image is to wonder if it’s real or not, then somebody has gone wrong. I want nature to speak for itself, realistically. But it’s all a gray area, no doubt. I think it’s one that we all have to finesse in our own way with our own personal standards.”

Callaert’s prized image of a sunrise above Muir Woods has actually suffered from the digital revolution, as many viewers now assume he has created the color in post.

“The dawn image has actually become somewhat of a quandary,” he says, “as when I sent in only original transparencies it was obviously real. Now people wonder what I’ve done to it. The answer is nothing. I actually lowered the saturation. In any case, it’s a one-in-a-million moment, right above my old house.”

The Marin County home base once again pays off. Still, Callaert says his work isn’t just about taking pictures in pretty places. It’s about the personal need to get outside and explore the natural world. The camera simply provides a good excuse.

“I live my life to explore,” he says, “so many places, so little time. You can’t spend the time and energy doing this unless a love of the outdoor life is what prompts it all. If there were no such thing as photography, most of us would be out there anyway.”

To see more of Edgar Callaert‘s photography, visit


Edgar Callaert’s Gear List

Nikon D700 full-frame (FX-format) DSLR
AF-S Nikkor 24-70mm ƒ/2.8G ED
AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II
AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED
The next purchase:
AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED