The Photographer Interviews: Michelle Mattern

How did you get into photography?

As a child I was always fascinated by cameras. I remember this picture of me at the age of four, proudly standing in front of the christmas tree with an analog camera smiling from ear to ear. My father is also into photography, so I started borrowing his camera regularly from the age of ten. I got my first DSLR when I was thirteen and since then photography became a significant part of my life. In my teenage years I was a lot into fashion and beauty photography.

After I discovered my passion for surfing, my focus of photography shifted more to natural light settings and outdoor surroundings. Later I studied photography at the University of Applied Sciences and Art in Dortmund, Germany, where I even dove deeper in the world of photography. After university I started traveling the world and worked in surf camps selling my photos, where I developed my deep passion for surf and travel photography.


Where do you look for inspiration?

There are so many places, sources and photographers I get inspiration from, I couldn’t name all of them. My main inspiration is nature itself, especially the ocean as it always changes. It can be rough and rigid or calm and still, a symbol for life itself. Soft light around sunrise or sunset are my favourite hours to get creative.

What type of camera and lenses do you use?

As my main camera I use a Canon 5D Mark IV with 24mm, 50mm, 100mm and 100-400mm. My favorite lense, I would say, is 50mm. If I had to decide, I would always choose fixed focal length lenses - as you have to move more to get the shot what means exploring more, seeing more different perspectives.


Are there any projects you are especially proud of?

On Sri Lanka I did a journalistic documentary about one of the biggest tea plantations over there, where I documented the work situation of female tea pickers. I visited the tea fields for one week straight, spoke to many pickers and tuk-tuk drivers. For me this was a quite challenging project I am proud of. Leaving my comfort zone asking uncomfortable questions with language barriers, earning the locals trust from day to day to open up about their shadow sides of working.


What's your favorite image you've captured?

My favorite pictures are those that instantly teleport me back into the moment with all senses by looking at them. I really like this early morning scenery shot on Sri Lanka, which symbolises the country in a nutshell for me. I shot this image through the window of a tuk-tuk driving behind.

Soft sunrise light at 6am in the morning, already 32°C/90°F degrees, high humidity and waterdrops on the windshield leaving a nice lense flare. The smell of exhaust fumes, the humid jungle and burned coconut shells are still in my memory.


What subject draws you to take a photo of it?

I love capturing people following their passion (mostly surfing), seeing them become one with nature, being present in the moment and seeing them glow from gratefulness for being fully connected to their higher self and nature. Golden light and every type of H2O are what draws my attention.


What subject draws you to take a picture of it?

Don’t put too much pressure on you or limit yourself in expectation to get exactly "that shot“. Most pictures I really like, weren’t the ones I really planed to take in advance. Be present in the moment, look for small details which could give the picture its special something.

I like referring to the golden ratio, as it gives the picture depth and therefore I can play with leading the attention of the viewer to a specific part of the picture. While shooting in water, I try to expand from the documentary sport photography aspect by shooting during low sun position to give my pictures a dreamy, atmospheric mood.


What’s the secret! Are there specific types of equipment for taking these kinds of photos?

In my opinion it doesn’t need professional photo equipment to take amazing pictures, but of course it makes it easier to get a good exposure. Because I shoot a lot in water, a professional underwater camera housing is essential for me. Shooting in water can be challenging at the beginning, especially if you shoot water sports.

My advice is to always double check your water housing, I even put cotton wool pads inside it to absorb and prevent any damage of possible leaking. Use fins and wear a helmet for safety reasons, train your athletic endurance in the water with swimming long distance and be aware of currents in the ocean (set yourself a fixed point on land to check your positioning). Rubbing the lense with saliva helps to prevent waterdrops on the image.

What has been your biggest challenge in pursuing a career in photography?

To be confident to really go for my career full time and stop meeting expectations of others. Also being a so called "digital nomand“, traveling and working from abroad and to not loose myself in the abundance of possibilities can be tough from time to time, as I am a person who is actually more into routines.

What advice would you give to someone starting a career in photography?

Get yourself out there! Don’t ask yourself "what if“ - just do it, so trite it sounds. Showcase your work to as many people possible on online platforms, art galleries, etc. Know your worth, don’t do something for less. Find your niche! Take pictures of your hobbies, your passion, anything that excites you will speak through your images.

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