This past summer, Chicago-based travel photographer Ken Koskela spent 17 days in China, where he captured a stunning mix of environmental portraits and awe-inspiring landscapes that highlight the rich beauty and culture of the Asian country. Koskela presents both a macro and micro view of China’s countryside, narrowing in from all-encompassing vistas to eye-catching locals in rural villages. Shot with an emphasis on superb light, the photographer’s breathtaking images share the stories of individuals and their surrounding environments in a stunning and evocative way.
We had the chance to ask Koskela a few questions about his work and experience in China. Scroll down to read that exclusive interview.
What inspired you to travel to China this past May/June?
I have a weakness for travel photography. It doesn’t take much to convince me to go to an amazing photographic location. The trip to China started with seeing a single image taken in Xiapu by a good friend of mine, Steve Chong. Seeing that image led to some Google searches and a quick decision that I needed to photograph there. But China is a long flight, so I convinced myself that it also made sense to go back to Guilin to capture some of the iconic locations there, such as the rice terraces, Li River, and the karst mountains.
What resulted was a 17-day trip that yielded a large number of images, both portrait and landscape, that I am quite happy to have in my portfolio. This trip to China was the most challenging and photographically rewarding trip to date. Because I was shooting landscapes at sunrise and sunset, as well as portraits in the afternoon, I averaged about 4 hours of sleep a night for 17 days. Needless to say, it took me a couple weeks to recover.
You shoot both powerful portraits and stunning landscapes. When it comes to these two types of photos, do you favor one over the other?
First, thank you for the kind words!
I am an introvert by nature, and so portrait photography takes more energy in that it often involves walking around villages and arranging photo sessions with people I’ve never met. But I love the challenges of it, and I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing the final result. And, for someone born in the Chicago suburbs, it is a real privilege to spend 20 minutes with a rural villager in China.
I would say that I have more fun shooting landscapes. Although you often go home with nothing due to poor weather and lighting, I love how landscape photography brings me to amazing places that I would probably never have seen otherwise. Taken together, the combination of environmental portraits and landscapes works well for me and really rounds out my portfolio. It definitely keeps me busy shooting.
What kinds of moments do you try to capture?
Most of my portrait work involves spending 15-20 minutes with a subject whom I’ve identified and arranged an on-the-spot session with. So they are typically not candid pictures of special moments as much as they are arranged sessions of intriguing-looking people. However, some of my sessions with children really did capture a moment because they were so happy getting their picture taken. There was one session with a little Colombian girl that comes to mind where I felt I really captured an important moment for her…and for me too.
In the case of landscape, it is about being in the right place when the lighting is at its best. I like taking pictures of places that make people look twice at the image, and so capturing those places in great light is what I am after.
How do you choose subjects for your environmental portraits? What is it about these individuals that compels you to photograph them?
For me, the choice of subject is critical. I like creating stylized, surreal portraits that capture the emotion of everyday people. I say “everyday people,” but the truth is that I seek out intriguing-looking people who have something special or unique about them. I look for people who have “experienced life.” Because of that, I am partial to photographing older people. I often find my subjects in rural villages because the subject, the clothing, and the background are more likely to work well together.
What role does lighting play in your photography?
For portraits, the main goal of lighting is to direct my viewer to my subject, especially his or her face, and also to provide a sharp image with good contrast. 90 percent of my portraits are shot using off-camera flash. Because I carry everything with me, I go pretty basic on lighting…just a single flash with an umbrella or softbox in most cases. I try to get a decent balance of natural and artificial light and avoid putting too much flash on the subject. I generally slightly underexpose the background and then bring in the flash.
For landscapes, the role of lighting is critical, as you would expect. I shoot most of my landscape images at sunrise or sunset. You have much less control over lighting with landscape photography. Because of that, I typically give myself a few opportunities in the same location to increase my chances of getting good light. In China, I built in some flexibility to allow myself multiple chances in the highest-priority locations. This made all the difference, as it was usually on my 2nd or 3rd attempt that I got some good light.
My Modern Met granted permission to use photos by Ken Koskela.