Scott Tansey: A Profoundly Panoramic Vision of the World, Part 1

Perhaps the best way to understand who Scott Tansey is and how he sees his mission is to let him speak for himself: “I am driven to make photographs. Even when I’m with other photographers, I’m up earlier to chase the great light, spend more time seeking out great images, and often finish later, well after others have gone back inside.”

Scott Tansey has been taking photos for over 40 years. In the mid 1980s, he was submitting panoramic images to a stock agency and his photos were published in a wide range of media including Consumer Reports and Audubon Magazine. However, in the mid 1990s, Tansey switched careers and attended law school. Although he still loves and practices law, his passion for photography has steadily increased as has his confidence and he’s ready to share his work with the public. He’s traveled and photographed in Alaska, Europe and Patagonia in the past four years. Below, Scott opens up about his panoramic photography using the Leica S-System and his trip to Patagonia.

Q: How does photography fit into your daily life experience?

A: I am fortunate to have two jobs that I love. Recently, I opened my own estate planning practice and I love helping people protect themselves and loved ones from current and future events. I find that estate planning and photography have a couple of things in common: 1. In both professions, one has to be very observant and in the moment and 2. In estate planning one has to listen to not only what is said but also to what is not said. This parallels some of the key things I look for in photography where one not only has to look for the obvious but also for the negative space and background.

Q: When did you first become interested in photography?

A: In my mid-teens. I was inspired by my sister, who won the first Imogen Cunningham Award, and my brother’s European images. My father and grandfather were avid photographers that were taking color pictures in the 1950s. When I received my first SLR at age 20, I realized that I loved photography as an art form. I had a couple of photo exhibitions in the mid-1970s. In the early 1990s I started to sell stock images through a panoramic stock agency and had some success.

Unfortunately, the prices for stock images collapsed as digital images took over from film. At the end of 2010, I made a complete conversion and now shoot all digital. After comparing my S2 images to my analog panoramic camera images, I sold all of my film panoramic equipment. At the end of 2011, I started my fine arts photography business. The S2 really has helped me get the business started. Honestly, I couldn’t capture the detail I am now without this camera system.

Q: Did you have any formal education in photography, with a mentor, or were you self-taught? Was there a photographer or type of photography that influenced your work or inspired you?

A: I am basically self-taught, but I did admire and study other photographer’s work, such as Ernst Haas, Ansel Adams, Ed Weston, Minor White, Henri Cartier-Bresson and J.H. Lartigue. I have attended a number of photographic workshops: two that stand out are the one with John Sexton and Philip Hyde down the Green and Colorado Rivers, and the second was in Alaska with Robert Glenn Ketchum. However, the best and most important workshop I ever took was an advanced printing workshop with John Paul Caponigro. It changed my photographic life. It gave me the confidence to control the photographic process through the print.

Q: Why do you think it is so important to be able to “control the photographic process through the print?”

A: Last summer, I tried to sign up for a beginning or an intermediate printing class with John Paul Caponigro. There were no spaces in either, but there was an opening in the advanced class, and I was encouraged to take it even though I had no printing experience. Except for 3 Cibachrome images, I joked that I was a printing virgin. However, the five days at John Paul’s studio changed my photographic life. There I learned techniques to improve my images and to make small corrections to the RAW image that enhance the print. I am not talking about removing items or repositioning objects in the image, but rather using the techniques, such as dodging and burning as used in the traditional darkroom. More important, I learned about sharpening, and mostly I left my fear of printing behind at that workshop. I believe it is essential to control the image through the print because I know best how I want the print to look like.

Q: You were fortunate indeed to have attended workshops given by such outstanding photographers as John Sexton, Philip Hyde, and Robert Glenn Ketchum. How do you think they enriched your vision and influenced your work?

A: The main lesson I learned on the Southwestern workshop with John Sexton and Philip Hyde is that I could take intimate panoramas and that panoramic imagery works with smaller scenes and subjects. When I went to Alaska, Robert Glenn Ketchum reminded me of two things. First, remember that to capture a great image, the only thing you look at is within the four corners of the image. Second, that landscape photography can be used to save endangered environments.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I learned early on from my mother the value of good tools in any endeavor. In the early ‘70s a friend of mine purchased an M5 and my interest in Leica cameras began. I purchased a Leica CL with my mother’s teachings echoing in my mind. Since then I have owned an M6, M7, M8 and an M9. The M lenses were and are amazing.

Q: When did you start using the Leica S-System?

A: I saw a demonstration of the S2 in May 2010. I purchased the S2 and the 70 mm and 35 mm lenses in July of 2010. I used the S2 with my Hasselblad XPans on a trip to Europe in August 2010 and since then I have used the S2 exclusively for my fine art work.

Q: What is your favorite lens and why?

A: That’s like asking parents their favorite child. All the Leica S lenses are incredible. The 35 mm lens is great for landscape, cityscape and group photos. The 120 mm Macro is great for portraiture, landscapes and macro pictures. I spent months working with it on a series of Rose Portraits. I was resistant to purchasing the 180 mm lens. I thought it was a ’tweener — too long for portraiture and not long enough for telephotography. Then, when I decided to go Patagonia, I remembered that in Alaska I used my telephotos more than my normal or wide angles. Suddenly the 180 mm made sense and in Patagonia I used the 180 about 80% of the time. I’m currently working on a series of stitched panoramas of Los Angeles from different overlooks at different times of day, all shot with the 180 mm lens.

Q: What attracted you to the S-System?

A: Image quality. I have used other digital cameras, including the M8 and the M9, and several Canons, but none of them approached the quality I was able to obtain from my Linhof Technoramas, 6 x 17 cm film cameras that capture amazing pictures. However, I was delighted to find that my prints from the S2 at 30 inches are better than the 6 x 17’s. When I am able to stitch images together, I can achieve very high quality images at large sizes. Also, since the S-System is a digital system, I can process my images and print them myself. I have control of my images from capture to print. The other characteristic of the S-System is its 3:2 aspect ratio where other medium-format systems have a 4:3 ratio. Since I like panoramic photography, it’s easier to crop a single S-System image into a panoramic image. Also, it easier to combine images into a stitched image quickly with the S-System’s 3:2 ratio. Finally, I like the minimalist operating system of the S-System. The whole operation of the S-System was intuitive once I mastered its operating gestalt.

Q: What other characteristics or qualities of the Leica S-System make it ideal for landscape photography?

A: As I said, the image quality is stunning. The second advantage is speed (considering the quality of the images, I know that the S-System is not as fast as some 35 mm DSLRs). Although the landscape doesn’t change, the light can and does change rapidly. With the 6 x 17, I had only four images (or eight images with 220 film), before I had to change a roll of film. With the S-System I can shoot over 800 images on a 64GB card and the battery lasts longer. With the 6 x 17, I had to manually advance the film, manually set the aperture and shutter speed and guess at the focus. These functions are all automated on the S2 as much as I want them to be so I’m able to take more images quicker giving me a chance to adjust to the changing light. Since the S2 is a digital camera, I can experiment more with the panoramic images. The weather sealing is essential, since I often take landscapes in inclement weather. Inclement weather creates some of the best light for landscape images.

Q: What was the inspiration for your Patagonia project and what did you hope to accomplish?

A: I read a book about South American National Parks about 20 years ago. Since then I have dreamed of going to Torres Del Paine and Los Glaciares and the rest of Patagonia. In late 2011, I saw a small ad in Outdoor Photographer from Patagonia Photo. Patagonia was a natural extension of photo work I had done in the American Southwest (including the Grand Canyon, Zion, Bryce, Capital Reef, Arches, Canyonlands, Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly), two trips to Alaska (Denali), several trips to Yosemite, several trips to Point Lobos and Big Sur, Olympic National Park and Redwood National Park. I hoped to capture images of amazing threatened landscapes. Other than that I kept my mind open.

During my time in Patagonia, I was fortunate that fog and clouds did not obscure the stunning landscapes except for the last day of the trip. We had tremendous cloud formations and light on the trip. I was on a photo tour with five other photographers, but was usually away from the group – I made sure that I followed my own vision. Most of the images I captured were completely new views of the subject that I have not seen anywhere. I was the first one from our group up at sunrise and the last one to return at sunset in search of images. I think the benefits of this approach are reflected in the images I was able to capture.

When I worked with film, most of the time, I used the 3:1 aspect ratio. Later on I purchased an XPan and that aspect ratio is closer to 2:1. Now that I’ve switched completely to digital with the S2, I am more flexible with my aspect ratios. If I just crop a single image, the aspect ratio is between 2:1 and 3:1. When I stitch images together, I am now going to wider aspect ratios, as in some of my Fitzroy Range images where I am going to 4:1, 5:1 and even 6:1 ratios. A couple of my Torres del Paine images have wide aspect ratios. When printed, the images look amazing. However, it is extremely expensive to frame images that are longer than 6 feet (1.85 meters), and prohibitive over 7-1/2 feet (2.25 meters).

Q: There is only picture in your portfolio that reminds me of pictures I’ve seen. It is a spectacular picture and brilliantly composed, but how do you feel about going to an iconic place and shooting a subject that has been covered many times before by some pretty great photographers?

A: First, I love going to amazing places. I cannot, and do not let the fact that other photographers have made spectacular images of amazing places limit or intimidate me. I do not have their vision, and they do not have mine. In addition, I come with a panoramic viewpoint, and most, if not all, the previous photography are not panoramic images. I have been to Yosemite National Park and Point Lobos State Reserve numerous times and many great photographers have covered these locations: Edwin Curtis, Ansel Adams, Ed Weston,  Brett Weston, Cole Weston, Minor White and Ernst Haas. It is my challenge to make my own great images and not merely place my tripod where others have placed them before me.

Thank you for your time, Scott!

- Leica Internet Team

To see more of Scott’s work, visit his website.