Through A Lens Darkly

As part of the new generation of landscape photographers on the forefront of digital technology, Michael Bollino is bridging the gap between 
straight photography and digital art

Regardless of location or technology available, Michael Bollino's photographic goal is to capture moments that engage the viewer emotionally. Bollino originally started shooting on slide film and has grown with technology to embrace digital techniques to enhance these moments. He credits his ability to make informed digital decisions with his previous analog experience, which required creating each shot in-camera with one frame. Focus stacking, exposure blending and tonal area control are all tools he uses, but usually for the purpose to overcome technical limitations. Bollino also has taken advantage of the digital advancements through increased ISO range, which allows him to shoot earlier in the day and later into the night. He's interested in the growth of photography and encourages a healthy and amicable debate about where the line of photography and digital art exists. Above: "Awakening." Sunrise, Glacier National Park, Montana.

Portland, Oregon-based Michael Bollino seamlessly blends a classic landscape eye with the tools and sensibilities of a cutting-edge, 21st-century landscape photographer. The results are magnificently crafted images of the natural world. Focusing on the power of the single image, he ventures into areas beyond the wildest dreams of his predecessors, utilizing high ISOs and camera and postprocessing techniques to give us a new reality. While he has traveled to some of the most dramatic landscapes the globe has to offer, from the Himalayas to the Patagonian Andes, he has found his own backyard, the Pacific Northwest, to be an endless source of inspiration.

OP: Do you see a difference in approach to landscape photography between your beginnings as a film photographer and, now, as one who embraces cutting-edge technology and techniques fully?

Michael Bollino: There's a distinction between the modern digital landscape photographer and their film predecessors. I used to shoot slides with SLRs. I see a big difference stylistically and technically between the pre-digital and digital age.

I use many modern digital techniques in my images, such as focus stacks and exposure blends, as well as using Photoshop to control very specific tonal areas. These techniques just weren't available in the pre-digital era. When I shot film and slides, I had to make everything work in one tidy package—exposure, depth of field, choice of shutter speed. Learning these techniques and developing the postprocessing skills to utilize them actually informs my decision-making out in the field. This, in turn, informs creative choices.

I realize there's still a lot of distrust of Photoshop-heavy images, and to some degree, this is warranted due to non-divulged sky replacements, importation of compositional elements that weren't part of the scene, etc. But what can't be denied is that modern camera bodies and knowledgeable use of the digital darkroom have greatly expanded what's possible to capture and present. That's exciting, and I embrace these techniques. Modern digital landscape photographers are creating images with the precision and control that just wasn't available in the pre-digital era. There's still a good deal of debate in the landscape world on where the line falls between what's a photograph and what's digital art. The digital era is in its adolescence, and these sorts of discussions—absent the vitriol—are healthy.

OP: How do you do focus-blending?

Bollino: I typically start by getting really close and focusing on a foreground subject matter with my Nikkor 16-35mm ƒ/4 with a fairly stopped down ƒ-stop. I then focus in increments from the front to the back without changing the angle. Then, in Photoshop, I combine all those images to create one single, sharp image. It's easy when nothing is moving in the image. It's more difficult in a situation where flowers are moving around in a breeze.

"Broken Dream." The Milky Way over Broken Top, Bend, Oregon.

OP: Traditionally, the edges of the day are considered the most likely times to yield the strongest images because of the warm Kelvin temperatures and pleasing shadows. Has technology been able to bend time in the favor of the digital outdoor photographer?

Bollino: Edges of the day still produce the best light, but now I can shoot for longer periods. Staying out later and getting up earlier is something that the digital age has brought. A good example is my halo shot in Death Valley. I had a pretty nice sunset, and I was satisfied with the photographic results, but there was no wind so I decided to hang out and see what would happen as twilight and night descended. With the technology, I could keep shooting as the light faded, and then the halo appeared. I try and stay at the base ISO as much as possible, but my limit for the land areas is 1600. This amazing ice halo formed around the moon. It was so big that, even at 16mm, it probably occupied two-thirds to three-quarters of my vertical frame. I wanted to get rid of the distorting effect of the wide-angle so I went horizontal and shot directly at it, then composited it back into the image for the top third of the final frame.

While "Halo" and my Milky Way images are composited exposures, they're captured on the same evening/night at the same locations, just several hours apart. I often do shoot multiple exposures to blend for depth of field or dynamic range, but I don't personally consider these composites, just techniques to overcome the limitations of cameras and lenses. I would never swap out or in skies, or anything like that.

For my "Head and the Heart" image in Joshua Tree, the moon was shot at a longer focal length so it appears larger than it was when I shot it wide with the 16-35mm ƒ/4. The moon was shot with the Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/4. The moon in the wide-angle range would have appeared as a pinprick. So it's technically a composite, but I wanted the final image to appear more as you would see it.

OP: How was "Broken Dream" created?

Bollino: The land portion with the mountain stream was shot 45 minutes to an hour after sunset in deep twilight. This is Broken Top, a volcanic peak near Bend, Oregon. It's very close to the more famous Three Sisters. Then I waited several hours for the Milky Way to become much more vibrant and then shot the Milky Way. I try not to shoot the sky like this for more than 30 seconds and aim for 25. My fastest wide-angle lens right now is the 16-35mm ƒ/4 so it's actually not great for Milky Way images. I'm in the market for the Nikkor 14-24mm ƒ/2.8.

OP: What are you using for an ISO to capture the Milky Way?

"Fond Farewell." Balsamroot flowers caught in the late-afternoon sun, the eastern Columbia River Gorge, Oregon.

Bollino: I try and stay around the 3200 ISO mark. If you're around 25 seconds, the stars will really be pinpricks. At 30 seconds, I start to see movement in the stars, especially if I zoom in. I use the Nikon D800E. The thing about night photography and star fields is, you can apply a heavy dose of noise reduction. It's not like shooting a highly detailed scene late at night where the high ISO would be more impacting on the image quality.

OP: What about the color?

Bollino: I do a lot of color work in Photoshop. I start out with a pretty natural rendition of a given scene, then, as I work on the image, I may cool things off or warm things up, or try and separate color tones to give a cool shadow or warmer highlight feel to it. I use mostly Adobe Camera Raw from Bridge, then from Raw into Photoshop. Using Smart Objects allows me to work on the RAW file, then export it into Photoshop, then I can go back into Camera Raw and make other adjustments. That way, I can work on the RAW file to get it to where I want it to be before I fully jump into Photoshop with it.

OP: Do you work with neutral-density filters?
Bollino: I stopped using graduated neutral-density filters a couple of years ago. I found that I could get what I needed out of an image in Photoshop in a more natural way without them. The grad part of the filter would often get in the way, and it was tougher to blend or remove. It's more natural to get the look out of a single image or to take two images with different exposures and blend them together. Then I can get the horizon line exactly as I want it. There's still a need for graduated filters during the day for long exposures.

OP: How long have you lived in the Pacific Northwest?

Bollino: I'm from Maryland, suburban D.C., but I've been out here since my early 20s. It was a lifestyle choice. I wanted to be surrounded by nature and have access to mountains and volcanoes. I went to Towson University near Baltimore and earned a degree in Geography and Environmental Planning. While I was there, I went out and worked in Olympic National Park for two summers. I just loved the rain forests, the high mountains, the glaciers and the coastlines of the Northwest. It was a total package place. Pretty soon, after graduating college, I moved out with a friend and have been here since 1997. A few years later, I went back to school to get a Master's in Special Education at Portland State.

OP: Are you doing nature photography full time?

Bollino: I get some income from it, but I teach special education full time in the Portland school system, so photography is a passion/part-time business. My official ending time at school is 3:10 p.m., so I can get out and shoot, especially during Daylight Savings Time. I can be at a dramatic part of the coast within an hour and a half; I can be at Mount Hood or the eastern Columbia River Gorge during flower season in the same amount of time. The eastern Columbia River Gorge isn't an official name, but many photographers refer to the "eastern Gorge" as a way of distinguishing it from the main section of the Columbia River Gorge known more for its lush forests and waterfalls. It's crazy how fast the rainfall drops off once you get past Hood River.

Bollino is a special-education teacher in Portland, so most of his shooting time is spent close to home in the Northwest, but he's always excited for new adventures. So far, global travels have taken him to Nepal, Tibet, Patagonia and Bolivia. Below: "Sunset Llamas," southwestern Bolivia.

I draw a lot of inspiration from many of the photographers working in the Pacific Northwest.

OP: Who are some of them?

Bollino: Definitely Marc Adamus. His work blows me away. He works very hard. He's always shooting. His compositions are flawless. He's got a very artistic processing style. He tries and innovates new techniques. Marc influences a lot of the modern digital landscape photographers. Floris van Breugel is another guy whose work I think is phenomenal. He has a blog called Art in Nature. He's another photographer with amazing compositions, the way he arranges elements within a frame. He shoots a lot of things that others don't shoot. He doesn't shoot a lot of the icons. Instead, Floris does a lot of wilderness backpacking and climbing, and creates very artistic landscape shots. I would add Alex Noriega and Ryan Dyar to that list, as well. I know both of them personally, and they're fantastic photographers whose work continues to push my own work forward.

OP: On occasion, you include people and/or animals in a dramatic way, which gives the image a great sense of drama and scale, for example, your photo of llamas and herders on a ridge.

Bollino: That was in Bolivia near the Salar de Uyuni. I shot "Sunset Llamas" with a Tamron 28-300mm on a Nikon N80 loaded with Fuji Provia film. The whole southwest area of the country is spectacular. Shooting with film, especially slide film, was definitely done at a slower pace to make sure I got the exposure right on. With digital, I check the histogram and make sure nothing is blown out or the shadows aren't clipped.

But whether shooting with film or in digital, photography, for me, is about being out in nature and connecting to the conditions I'm presented with. This act of moving through and engaging with the natural world is pretty sacred to me.

See more of Michael Bollino's work at

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