I first interviewed Ben for EMULSIVE in 2016. He was, perhaps predictably, an absolute pleasure to work with and I really enjoyed the result, as did many others. The intention at the time was that the interview would be the first in a series of longer pieces where I talk to YouTubers who are prominent in the film photography world. For a variety of reasons the series didn’t progress as I had hoped, but that is now being remedied with interviews from two other very popular YouTubers in the making as I write.
As the last interview was three years ago I have been really keen to catch up with Ben again and see how he is doing. His YouTube channel is going strong and his content is (IMHO) better than ever. I can see some things have changed a bit since our last chat, and some things are thankfully very much the same. You will be glad to hear that Ben hasn’t (on camera at least…) bought a sports car and started darting around snapping 60fps to a background soundtrack of Skrillex.
Ben was instantly on board to revisit our chat so I got stuck straight in! I was keen to know how he feels his photographic journey has developed (hurr hurr) in the last three years, what has stayed the same, what is completely new and what has fallen by the wayside.
So please grab a cup of tea, settle down and enjoy the calming words of Ben Horne…
RD: Your style has definitely evolved over the time I have been watching you, which I guess is about 4-5 years now….wow….. You seem to talk more now on your trips and show more of the process and background to your shots. Was that a deliberate thing, or have you got more comfortable talking to the camera over the years and it’s just naturally changed?
BH: That’s a great observation.
My primary goal is to tell the story of each trip. Through the years I’ve learned what type of video footage I need to accomplish that. If I come up short, I’m forced to tell the story with a voiceover, which takes significantly more time to create.
There are times when I’m worn out, I’m tired, and I don’t really feel like recording any video, but I know a short narrative video clip in the field will save a lot of work later down the line. While filming a narrative clip, I often feel like I’m speaking nonsensical gibberish, but somehow it all seems coherent when I’m editing the video together. I suppose some of that comes with experience.
RD: How long does it take you to shoot one of your ‘here’s 10 seconds of a sliding view of me walking past this bush” shots? Do you have many ‘takes’?
BH: I’m glad you’ve noticed those shots. The effect is often quite subtle, but I love how the motorized slider adds so much dimension. I try to incorporate at least one of those clips in each video. On average, it takes 10 or 15 minutes to film one of those sliding video clips. They’re very easy to get it right on the first take — though I routinely film an alternate version with the slider going a bit faster or slower.
RD: Is there anywhere in Zion that you haven’t been to or photographed? Do people there recognise you there now?
BH: That’s one of the things I love about Zion — it’s a place of endless exploration. I’ve visited each year since 2009, and I’ll never tire of it. As I write this, I’m less than a month away from my annual fall trip there.
I’ve spent the past few days scouring satellite imagery, searching for new areas to explore. Through the years, I’ve become proficient at reading satellite imagery, looking at the clues, and finding promising subjects that are tucked away. That’s one of the things I absolutely love about Zion. It’s a location loaded with potential. A person could truly spend a lifetime there, and still see only a small portion of the park. On the topic of being recognized, it happens, but I try to stay away from the densely populated areas.
I love the sense of solitude that comes with staying away from the crowds — and if I see anyone on the trail, chances are it’s a friend of mine. That’s one of the things I look forward to about Zion each year, the camaraderie among friends. Last year Alan Brock flew to Zion in his Cessna. At the end of the trip, he took myself and two other photographers (Martin Quinn and Justin Lowery) for an aerial tour of the region.
As we flew over Zion’s towering sandstone peaks, I was blown away by all the hidden canyons tucked out of sight, and quite possibly never explored on foot. It was an amazing experience.
RD: I love that you are featuring picking up litter that you find, like the balloons in Death Valley. Have you noticed an increase in discarded items and general litter over the last few years?
BH: Yes, unfortunately — I’ve noticed a steady increase not only in litter, but also vandalism. It coincides with the rise in visitation brought on by social media, with Instagram being the primary culprit. I remember only 5 or 6 years ago when I could drive to Zion in the fall without campground reservations. Now, I need to book my campsite 6 months in advance.
Zion is a geographically small national park, yet it receives over 4 million visitors each year — making it the 4th most frequently visited National Park in the United States. The gridlock is further compounded since most of the park’s visitors are compressed into Zion’s main canyon. People now spill into areas not accustomed to seeing as much foot traffic. Along with that comes trash and vandalism.
This is absolutely disgusting, and it is very troubling to see. This past fall while hiking through some seldom visited washes, I found much more trash than usual. Rather than taking photos, I decided to spend a day picking up trash. I always try to put myself in other people’s shoes, and I can see how a small candy wrapper can accidentally escape a person’s pocket, but diapers and cigarette butts? Come on. That doesn’t happen accidentally.
It’s easy to point toward social media as the problem, but in many ways, that’s like blaming other drivers while you’re stuck on a gridlocked freeway. In that scenario, I am just as much a part of the traffic as the driver next to me. I don’t by any means have a huge youtube channel, but I have spoken to many people who have been inspired to visit Zion or other places because of my videos.
In that sense, I’m a part of that same problem that leads to the overcrowding — and all the issues that come with it. This is why I changed my approach several years ago. I’m now very vague about where I am within the park, and I’m even intentionally misleading at times. Some people might be turned off by that, but we need to think very carefully about the impact that we all have. Once an area becomes known to the masses, there will be an increase in litter, vandalism, and human waste.
The other way we can have a positive impact is by cleaning up the trash that others so carelessly leave behind. Most national parks don’t have the resources to keep pace with the rising crowds, so it’s important to do our own part. If you see some trash, pick it up. People might think twice about littering if the landscape is otherwise pristine.
RD: Are you thinking of going anywhere new in the coming year?
BH: That’s a great question. My plan is to visit Death Valley again early in 2020, this time exploring some new areas within the park. Spring will take me back to the Redwoods for a return trip, and I hope to explore some new canyons in Utah on a backpacking trip as well.
Beyond that, I’d like to return to the White Mountains of California again, and then, of course, my annual fall trip to Zion. At some point, I will be doing this full time, and that’s when I hope to add another trip or two each year. I’m very excited about that.
RD: The breadth of the subjects you are covering on your trips and MPJ videos seems to have increased with you covering various gadgets, computer tips, and now a kayak!! Can you give me any scoops on what you are going to be reviewing in the coming months?
BH: I have quite a few video topics in mind, some of which are more abstract than others – yes, including that kayak. I keep a list of possible video topics, and add to it whenever something comes to mind. I get a lot of questions about the equipment I use while backpacking so that’s a topic I hope to tackle, but I also want to dig deep with some videos about the art world’s perception of landscape photography, and other things along those lines.
RD: What are the stand-out moments for you in the last three years of your photography on YouTube?
BH: There are two things that come to mind. First and foremost, going on the flight with Alan Brock over the Grand Canyon and Zion this past fall was amazing — and it’s all thanks to the friends I’ve met through photography. Secondly, as things have evolved through the years, it is very exciting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
I may very well be able to pursue landscape photography full time on my own terms, and that definitely keeps me motivated. I have no interest in leading workshops, but youtube has been a great platform to make all of this possible.
RD: Which photography (and non-photography) YouTubers do you regularly watch, if you get any time to do such a thing?
BH: This is a tough one because I have so many very talented photographer friends who produce such great content, and I wouldn’t want to leave anyone off the list, but I will say that it’s a challenge staying up to date with all the content that is being created these days. Back when I started this, no one else was creating landscape photography videos on youtube, but now it’s definitely a thing and there are so many talented creators out there.
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RD: You famously lost an 8×10 and a DSLR on one trip to Death Valley in 2017. You seemed to take that in your usual calm and good-natured way; was it a blessing in disguise given what you have now in terms of gear? Did you learn anything from the experience? (Except to buy a sand-screw!)
BH: In many ways, it was a blessing in disguise. I absolutely loved my Ebony 8×10 camera — the smell, the feel, and the speed of use. Ever since that company went out of business, I was nervous about what the future would hold. It was around that same time that I purchased a Fujinon 600mm lens, the longest that currently own.
Using that lens on the Ebony wasn’t ideal due to the length of the bellows and the tripod mount being so far back on the camera. It was because of my incident with the Ebony that I realized the importance of obtaining replacement parts.
After the Ebony was repaired by a very talented friend of mine who does both photography and woodworking, I decided to sell the Ebony in favor of camera by a manufacturer that’s still in business. I went with the Arca-Swiss F Metric 8×10 because of the modular design, the ability to work well with a long lens, and precise geared movements.
The Arca Swiss allowed me to take some pre-dawn photos that wouldn’t have been possible with any of my previous cameras. In that sense, I definitely think the incident with the Ebony was a blessing in disguise.
RD: Are we going to see any more black and white from Ben Horne?
BH: This is something I would like to do, but my film developing skills are lacking. I’ve tried tray developing 3 times, but each time my technique was horrible. I need to invest in a Jobo rotary processor so I can have confidence in my own film developing skills.
As it stands right now, I really don’t want to put all of the effort into taking a photo, only to ruin it with bad developing technique.
RD: What’s your favourite freeze-dried camping meal?
BH: The breakfasts are my favorite. I love the Mountain House Breakfast skillet. I have those for lunch sometimes too. Just don’t look at the nutrition information panel on the back.
RD: Tell us a bit about your ebook “Composition and Storytelling: a Creative Guide to Process-Oriented Landscape Photography”. What gave you the idea to write it?
BH: There are many great publications out there about composition, but they often discuss “rules” and compositional elements by studying the final photo with overlaid lines and shapes. This isn’t a bad approach to teaching composition, but it doesn’t represent the full thought process that led to the final photo.
My goal with this eBook was to encapsulate the entire thought process of a large format photographer, and distill it down to the simple steps that other people can benefit from — regardless of the format they work with. The eBook offers advice on identifying and evaluating potential subjects, and crafting a composition from the unique perspective of a large format photographer.
I came up with the idea while I was on a photography trip last year. I’m very happy with how the eBook turned out, and I’m already working on my next one for release in mid-2020.
RD: Your Patreon page looks like it’s going really well, are you still working the reduced hours you agreed with your boss years ago that allowed you to take the photography trips? Do you foresee a time when you can live off your photography? This is assuming you aren’t already of course.
BH: I work 2 days a week at my day job, and though I’m at the point where I could pursue photography full time — it would be a stretch.
Thankfully my wife works full time as well, which really helps. What makes it difficult is that I have no desire to lead workshops, and that’s how many landscape photographers generate the bulk of their income. As a result, I’m forced to find other creative ways to pay the bills.
My goal is to jump into full-time photography next year, but we’ll see how that goes. I’m at the point in my career where I would rather make minimum wage doing what I love than to earn a more lucrative income doing something I have little desire for. Life is short, and happiness is key.
RD: Have you noticed a drop in your ‘old style’ contributions from viewers when you opened Patreon up? I’ve often wondered if it works as a new income stream or if people mainly just shift over from one method of donation to another.
BH: To be honest, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Patreon. I created the account as an alternative to PayPal, but Patreon encourages a monthly subscription model rather than once-yearly contributions. I don’t want the contributions to feel like a utility bill, and I really do wish they gave creators better control over this. Also, Patreon encourages creators to post subscriber-only content behind a paywall. I’m not a fan of paywalls, and would rather make the content available to everyone. I will at times post a sneak peak of my videos on Patreon, but that’s about it.
PayPal is still by far the most popular way that people contribute, and I’m extremely grateful for everyone, both on Patreon and PayPal that send voluntary contributions. Without them, I truly wouldn’t be able to pursue what I love.
RD: Last time I asked you for some tips for someone starting film photography and for someone wanting to start YouTubing with a mobile phone. This time I would like to ask if you have any tips for selling prints? Do your sales come mainly from people who have seen the YouTube content or do you find people buying your prints who have just searched for “Zion photograph” or something similar?
BH: Truth be told, I don’t sell a lot of individual prints — perhaps a handful each year. The bulk of my print sales are through my annual portfolio box sets where people can purchase a portfolio of my best work from each year.
I put a lot of work into each box set, and they have done very well over the past several years. My 2019 Edition is currently available for preorder, and at the time of writing this, 62 copies of the edition of 150 have already pre-sold. People tend to purchase artwork they feel a connection to, so nearly all of my box set and print sales come from people who have seen my videos. They know the story behind each photo, and what that photo represents. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy the story telling component of my videos.
I have some ideas on how to increase my individual print sales in 2020, but I’ll keep that a mystery for now.
As ever, Mr Horne was an absolute pleasure to work with. I am a huge fan and am extra pleased that we (my fiance and I) managed to buy his 2019 portfolio box set. I can’t wait for it to wing its way across the pond later this year; some of them are destined for the living room walls.
YouTube is an amazing resource for us all to dip into whether as content creators or, like me, as a way to get ideas, break out of ruts and learn the craft from those further along the path than ourselves.
This was Ben’s 2nd interview in this series, and I have two other familiar faces lined up for the coming weeks. I’ll keep those under my hat for now (aaah the antici………….pation!) but who do you think I should interview next? Or are you a YouTuber and would like to have your page in the limelight here on EMULSIVE? Get in touch with either me or EM and we will make it happen!!
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Great interview. I like the way Ben works. I believe that people can get much more if they spend efforts to develop their greatest talents than when they spend comparable efforts to correct their weaknesses. Talent allows people to reveal their strengths and thus become a better version of themselves and begin to live a better life. People like Ben are more satisfied with life, they feel happier. Studies show that people who are able to use their strengths at least once a day report lower levels of depression, a higher level of positivity, and better mental health. Good luck!
This is very accurate! You need to develop your strengths! But working on weaknesses is also necessary.
I watch Ben’s videos, and it was great to read and learn a little more about him. One big thing that makes him such a great and dedicated landscape photographer, is that he goes beyond the easy, usual spots, way out into the back country. He comes off a very mild-mannered, and doesn’t talk about the hardships much, but you do get little pieces of how hard-core he is now and then. The video where he talks about falling into a river really showed that for me. I do a fair amount of backpacking, but falling into a river and being swept downstream would really, really rattle me. But Ben brushed it off, and kept on going (until he felt it was no longer safe). He’s an inspiration for us all!
A pleasure as always, and I am really looking forward to the continuing series!