Hometown Heroes: Tim Neumann

We love our local photographers. Their accomplishments never cease to impress us. They are proof that Columbus is a great city for photographers. Hometown Heroes highlights a Columbus photographer that we think is doing amazing work.

Tim Neumann is the owner of Soft Lite Studios. He regularly teaches classes for MPEX U., including the upcoming Macro Photography class and the Better Photographer Workshop Series.

Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann
Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann

MPEX: You started taking photographs in the film days. However, it doesn’t seem like you’ve had any trouble transitioning to digital, as you’ve pretty much mastered all aspects of digital photography, in-camera and out. What was that transition like for you? How has your photography changed after going digital?

Tim Neumann: It’s kind of scary thinking about starting in the film era; it’s kind of like carbon dating one’s self. For me, the transition to digital imaging happened in phases. My initial reaction was one of skepticism, wherein I believed that there was no way digital imaging could match the quality of film, and at the time that was undoubtedly true. As sensors have matured, I am now convinced that, in an apples-to-apples sensor size comparison, traditional film quality has been far surpassed. Even after I began shooting digital there was a second phase to my acceptance: the issue, for quite a long period of time, was one of print quality. Up until the last couple of years, it was very difficult to get reliable, repeatable print output from digital images. With the latest generation of digital cameras and printers, I finally feel that the entire end-to-end imaging solution is available to the average shooter. Digital imaging  has completely transformed photography for me. New photographers, who have only experienced digital, can’t imagine the limitation of 36 exposures per roll, the inability to adjust ISO on the fly, and the per image cost of the film days. As compared to film, the cost per image of digital is exponentially lower, and this reduced cost leads to much greater willingness to experiment with new techniques, compositions, and settings. Overall I feel the the freedom of digital ideally lends itself to learning and becoming a better photographer.

Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann
Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann

I feel like you’re one of the more prolific photographers I know, especially considering photography isn’t your full-time gig. How do you find the time to dedicate to photography?

Photography, and more specifically the creation of compelling images, is a driving passion for me. For all that passion, there is also the feeling that there is a level of mastery you can never quite obtain. No matter how much you think you know about technique and composition, there is always more to be learned, and new techniques to be conquered. In over 30 years of shooting I feel as though I have barely scratched the surface of imaging technique; this drives me to shoot as much and as often as possible, sometimes to the irritation of others in my life.

Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann
Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann

You work in a variety of photographic genres, including underwater, wildlife, nature, not to mention portraiture and sports photos, and your photos are always of an incredibly high quality. How do you manage to work in all these different genres successfully? What’s your preferred genre, or is that always changing?

When I am shooting, I don’t necessarily think of the captured image as being genre specific, though in reality it most probably is. I think photographic genres are more helpful to the image’s viewer and assists that person in making more qualitative judgments about what they are viewing. My focus, no matter what I am shooting, is a divide between technique and composition. In the back of my mind, I am considering the technical aspects of the exposure, while I am trying to force myself to concentrate on the composition in the viewfinder. The topic of the shoot dictates compositional content, i.e. in sports your are looking for action, and tension; in nature your are looking for grandeur and scale; in portraiture you are looking for mood and intent, etc. To me the best shots, of any genre, are the ones that draw you into a moment, a location, another world. If there is a genre that I relate to more than any other, it is underwater photography, and in particular extreme macro subjects (typically subjects that are not visible to the naked eye). Good underwater macro imaging combines extreme technical challenge, advanced diving skills, and introducing the viewer to a foreign, beautiful, yet potentially hostile world.

Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann
Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann

In addition to your career and your photography, you also act as one of our regular educators and your classes are always informative and comprehensive. Do you have a background in education? Why is teaching photography important to you?

In my formal career, I have had periodic opportunities to engage in, and have always enjoyed, teaching experiences. For me teaching is the ideal way to learn a subject in more depth. Not only does it force greater comprehension, but it also exposes you to students who question your statements and provide you with alternative thought processes and approaches. I think a good teacher is one who learns as much from his or her student as he or she is able to teach them. My desire to teach photography courses and concepts is all about learning as much as I can about the craft, and staying engaged with those who have a similar passion as I do.

Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann
Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann

In one of your recent classes, there was a debate about whether or not using Photoshop “ruins” a photograph, or I guess makes a photograph less legitimate. You teach Photoshop and Lightroom classes for us, and you use editing software. I think I know which side of the debate you fall on. Why do you think editing software is so controversial? Do you think there is a point when editing software does challenge the integrity of a photo?

I really like this question, and the conversation that ensues any time this topic comes up. When I consider my stance on this subject, I reflect upon historical perspective. Ansel Adams, long considered to be one of the greatest photographers of our time, relied heavily upon custom chemical compositions for development, as well as creative darkroom dodging and burning techniques to bring out additional tonal quality in his finished prints. I think it is safe to say that most people viewing his work today accept his images as being some of the highest caliber representations of nature, in black and white, that exist. Additionally, there are numerous examples of highly regarded photographers using multiple images to composite the final print output in the darkroom. So, for me, there exists myriad examples of film photographers who have used advanced development and/or printing techniques in rendering their final prints. At the same time, I think it is important to observe that getting it right in the camera is of paramount concern. Experience tells me that no amount of editing, in Photoshop or with any other tool, can overcome bad composition or flawed exposure. Sure, you can make any picture look better, but better doesn’t mean great, or even good. I think a lot of this controversy comes from resistance to change: people generally don’t like change; it requires effort above and beyond the norm. For me, photographic integrity is mostly a function of the purpose of the image: if I am shooting sports, there is no manipulation involved, I am representing the moments as it happened. On the other hand, if my intended output is art, then I feel free to adjust the image as I see necessary. The viewing public will quickly tell me, either implicitly or explicitly, if I have gone to far. Silence from the viewing audience is the loudest critique of all.

Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann
Photo courtesy of Tim Neumann
Midwest Photo

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