Featured Artist – Colin Willemsen
Well today we have a first, actually a few of them. Our first blog post of the year, our first feature in a very long time, and our first interview with a photographer who is remarkably still just a student in high school. Don’t let his age fool you, his talents are far more advanced than his number of trips around the sun would suggest and he has been around shooting the northern Minnesota scene longer that you might think. We are of course talking about the immensely talented, advantageously adventuresome Colin Willemsen.
Always gotta start things off with the most important question… what’s the story of Colin Willemsen and how is it that you happened to get into photography in the first place?
Hi! Thanks for having me on the blog! My family has always been pretty outdoor oriented since I was little and my dad had always brought an old Nikon DSLR along on our hikes. At one point I became interested in trying to take photos on it, and I remember being excited about making things look out of focus, what I now know as bokeh. Fast forward a couple years and I began to experiment more with that camera and got a wide angle lens for it.
However, what I really give credit to for furthering my interest in photography was saving up my money for a drone. With the drone I really started to explore and photograph more, including with my DSLR. Eventually I began devoting more time towards photography and now I’m here getting featured on Up North Co.’s blog!
Usually I would say something here like “by trade you’re actually not a photographer you’re a…” but you’re actually a high schooler, so technically by trade you don’t exactly have a trade at all just yet. So how about this - what benefits or drawbacks does being in high school have on your hobby of exploring the world through photography?
That's right! Being a photographer while also in highschool definitely has its perks. For example, I was able to qualify for the Rocky Mountain School of Photography Highschool Photo Competition and I actually ended up winning the nature competition! I remember the moment I found out and it was such an awesome, surprising moment. During the 2020-2021 school year, school was online for about 75% of the time. While I acknowledge that for many this was a challenging time, I pursued my academics and was in turn left with a lot of free time which I used to spend photographing! I took many of my favorite images over this time, practiced new techniques, and photographed with new friends! I think having a passion at any age is so important but I’ve really enjoyed devoting my time towards photography, and I work to combine my passion into a revenue stream and business venture. However, also being a student athlete competing in three sports over the course of a school year, (Nordic Skiing is my favorite), it can be really difficult to find time to put towards the business side of things. I do have a positive viewpoint on this and am looking forward to working on some new ideas, especially in the spring when I’ll be a little less busy!
Since we brought it up, what trade do you see yourself going into? What are the plans for Colin’s future at this point in time?
Oh tough question. I’ve been getting this one a lot lately and right now I’m still not sure! I plan to go to college somewhere, but where is a big question right now. My priorities are a place where I can easily be outdoors and photograph. I’m interested in colleges and universities over on the East Coast, Michigan, maybe staying in Minnesota, and also out west! Luckily I’ve still got some time to ponder and I think if you come back to me in a couple of months I’ll definitely have a better defined idea than I do now!
How is it that you happened to get so good at photography so fast? And what do you see as your biggest area of opportunity for further growth in the field?
Haha, well thank you, I really appreciate the kind words but I want to continue to get better at photography, I guess you could say that's one of the ways I got to where I am today, my drive to improve. Some areas of interest for me to continue my improvement are timelapses, astrophotography (and combining those two), telling stories through my photography, and I would also love to delve into commercial photography.
How do your parents feel about this hobby that has you running all over the state, often at extremely odd hours of the night?
My parents are a big reason for how I am where I am today! Without them I wouldn’t have first seen the wonders of the North Shore which is what got me hooked on landscape photography. I am so grateful for my mom and how she has helped me with the business side of my photography, in particular helping me get ready for the art shows I have done in the past, matting prints, cutting tape, and folding cards. My dad is my adventure partner and the memories we’ve shared together camping and bushwhacking in the woods and exploring on and along the shore of Lake Superior will last a lifetime. If you look through my photos and pick one and ask me about when I took it, chances are my dad was standing next to me, sharing the view.
When it comes to photography, what would you say is your favorite aspect of the craft and what do you find most challenging?
My favorite part is without question the experiences that come from my drive to see new things and share them with my friends and family. It’s always so much more enjoyable to have a collective experience be that an incredible sunrise, hiking up a waterfall, or showing someone the dark skies of Minnesota for the first time. One of the best experiences I’ve shared was when my cousin and I spent about a week camping in different sections of the North Shore. We explored new spots and I also showed him some of the iconic North Shore vistas and viewpoints. As for the most challenging, it would be how to best photograph moving water on Lake Superior. It sounds specific but I think some photographers will know what I’m talking about. Deciding between whether to use a long exposure to smooth the water, or to freeze the action with a fast one, or maybe somewhere in between can be really difficult, especially when the conditions are changing quick. It’s one thing in particular that I want to continue to experiment with and I’m sure I’ll get better with practice!
Let’s talk a little bit about your “from the surface of the water” photography. What made you decide to take the plunge to actually get into Lake Superior, and what kind of precautions do you take when you hop into the greatest of lakes for the greatest of shots?
Well it all started out with figuring out a way to reach a certain location that was only accessible from Lake Superior. I already had a paddleboard so I started researching wetsuits, and then eventually looking into camera housings. Camera housings are a way for photographers to take their cameras into water. It’s really incredible the perspectives you get when you’re in the water and the lesser known locations that are able to be accessed and photographed. Recently I’ve been doing a lot more winter swimming and been getting so much satisfaction out of it. The cold water somehow gives me a clearer mind and I always feel very refreshed after a swim in the frigid temps. In the winter it’s a good idea to wear a helmet in the water, as a precaution against those incredible icicles that form along the shore!
We have heard from a number of our blog interviewees what an incredibly inclusive photography community Minnesota has, especially for those who frequent the North Shore and I know from following your work for a while that you’ve been quite involved in the community yourself. Locally speaking, who would you say has had the biggest influence on work to this point so far?
The photography community that we have here in Minnesota is truly awesome! I wouldn’t be where I am today without learning and shooting with so many other photographers. One who really stands out is John from Keefography (@keefography). Back in early March of 2020, he organized a photographer meetup at Tettegouche State Park and he was kind enough to invite me. Looking back, that was a big moment for me and my photography. Funny enough, I think that was my first time photographing sunrise on the North Shore and it really kicked off an interest in witnessing the break of day at new and exciting locations. Another photographer who I’ve really become good friends with would be Martin Ramirez Jr. (@martinjrmn). Ryan Rumpca (@ryanrumpca), Ben Ahrens (@bdahrens) and the aforementioned John Keefover and I have had some incredible times chasing waterfalls. Those are just a few, we really are so lucky to have so many welcoming and inspiring photographers in Minnesota!
Speaking of our past interviews, you’ve mentioned on a number of occasions what a big fan of our blog you are… so I gotta ask… who have been some of your favorite past features here that we’ve done?
When I was first getting into photography I remember being fascinated and inspired while reading the UNTC blog. The blogs you’ve done with Parker Hoen, Reece Hickman, and Derek Warner left me feeling giddy with an earning to explore. As someone who was just starting, these blogs provided me with a lot of inspiration and it’s pretty humbling to see it come full circle! I hope maybe there’s someone reading this who can take some inspiration away from my photography!
Even from just a quick glance at your work it is clearly evident that you have a love for landscape photography over other types of subject matter, so what is it in particular about nature that calls to you?
Yes, landscape photography is my absolute favorite. I love the connection I feel with the subject matter when I’m alone in the wilderness! The appreciation of nature that comes with landscape photography is the best takeaway, and it’s the memories that I replay in my head when I’m missing the tranquility of the forest or the epicness of Lake Superior’s waves.
How do you feel about geotagging? Is it a detrimental practice that is killing the most beautiful natural locations the planet has to offer, a perfectly acceptable practice that grants everyone access to nature’s most bountiful treasures, or perhaps something in between… a completely different shade of grey somewhere in the middle?
Geotagging is a difficult topic, I know not everyone will agree with me. Here in Minnesota we’re lucky to have so much amazing public land that is open for exploration. I don’t geotag most of my posts because I prefer to allow for the viewer, if they are interested, to try and find a location for themselves. If it is a popular location, I will mention it in the caption. Also I have to say there is a deep appreciation that comes with visiting a location after spending time researching to find a spot.
On that note, what is your approach to seeking out new destinations? Are you one who sees an interesting site on Instagram and feels like “man, I gotta see that for myself!” or do you prefer to find your own scenic views?
While I am certainly inspired by what I see from others on places like Instagram, I do seek out a lot of my own locations. The two types of locations I purposely seek out are waterfalls and the shoreline of Lake Superior (sea caves, sea arches, coves). Over the past year I’ve really honed in on my methods and been pretty amazed with some of the spots I’ve come across. There’s so much of the shore that is rarely seen and I hope to capture the unique locations and often surreal possibilities that come with them.
What is your philosophy or process when it comes to editing right now? This seems to be something that a lot of photographers adapt over time so it always makes me curious to understand where someone is at, especially early in their journey, and see where they end up taking things as they progress.
Editing is definitely one of the trickiest aspects of photography, especially when you’re just starting out. I’d like to think I have a nailed down style to my post processing but I’m constantly learning new techniques and trying new things. I think it’s one of the things that is easier for viewers to see than it is actually for the photographer, in most cases. I love the tone curve and find that it can really enhance the interaction between light and shadows. I primarily use Adobe Lightroom Classic and then supplement Photoshop for the occasional focus stack and any masking. My overarching philosophy is to keep the photos realistic, and making beautiful photos relies a lot on incredible conditions.
Everyone has their own idea of what the term Up North means... what to you is “Up North”?
When I think Up North, I think of very far Northern Minnesota, bushwhacking, sunset in the Boundary Waters, and many more, so many good things!
Duck duck grey duck or duck duck goose?
I hate to say it but I always played it as duck duck goose.
Alright man, here’s a silly one… you’ve been framed for murder in the Black Hills of South Dakota and they got you good, all appeals have been exhausted and the Governor has no intention of staying your imminent execution… it’s real unfortunate and super dire. What’s your last meal? Better make it count!
I’m a huge fan of Vietnamese cuisine and absolutely love the impactful flavors. I think I would choose a Pork Bún bowl with a lot of tasty marinated, grilled pork and a whole lot of herbs!
As you know, we asked our Instagram followers what kinds of things they would like us to ask you about and these are the things they are dying to know...
Do you find it helpful to drive to your location before sunset and then stay in tent/car until sunrise?
I’d say that’s definitely been beneficial for me in a couple of scenarios but I don’t do it often. However if I know that I want to be out paddling to a location, especially for sunrise in the summer, I’ll go snag a campsite to allow for a bit more sleep.
Favorite place on the North Shore to explore?
I’m always trying to find new spots but the Tettegouche area is a go to favorite. I’m sure a lot of people have heard that before but it’s true. Not only are there super popular destinations and vistas but there are some lesser known spots as well!
Advice for someone trying to break into the northern Minnesota photography scene?
Be unique and try to get out with other photographers, like I mentioned before, most people are super friendly and you learn a lot from the general experience of shooting with others.
What are your photography goals for the next 5 years?
I would love to have really ventured into the business side of things and begun to work with more brands while still communicating my passion for the outdoors and nature. I don’t know where I’ll be in 5 years location wise but I certainly hope to be in a place as beautiful as the North Shore where I’ll be able to photograph beautiful scenery!
Being so young, who or what has motivated you to continue to pursue photography?
In general the whole photography community in Minnesota has motivated me to pursue photography and in general my love for nature. Nature’s awe factor always leaves me curious and excited about what I’ll photograph next.
How do you feel about ketchup on mac n’ cheese?
Can’t say I’m a huge fan. I prefer some hot sauce on my mac.
Herring - yay or nay?
Having recently tried it at Christmas, I give it a “yay”.
Alright getting back to the script...
What resources do you use for improving your skills? What have been some of the biggest lessons you have learned since you first picked up a camera?
I’ve learned almost everything I know from either firsthand experience or from YouTube learning from some of the best photographers out there! I think one of the best things I’ve learned is to put an emphasis on including a defined foreground and background into my shots. Having an interesting middle ground like fog, sea smoke, or a natural leading line will create great depth in your photos and for me when I started to seek out these type of shots in the field I think it was a breakthrough moment for me and the way I wanted to make photos and the way I wanted them to look! If I were to recommend a few of my favorite YouTube landscape photographers I would give this list
Adam Gibbs (excellent landscapes and great personality and walkthrough of tips)
Mark Denney (lot of awesome composition tips)
Alyn Wallace (phenomenal astro-landscape photographer)
What do you typically bring with you when you go out for a shoot?
I just recently upgraded from a crop sensor camera to full frame so here’s what I’ve got right now.
Nikon Z 14-30mm f/4
Nikon Z 24-70mm f/4
Tamron 70-210mm f/4 with Nikon FTZ adapter
So all f/4 apertures which I find are just fine for most landscape photography. The Nikon Z lenses are ultra light and compact with great image quality so I’m looking forward to many backpacking trips with them this coming year. I also have a Rokinon 20mm f/1.8 lens which I recently purchased and I am excited to try it out for astrophotography! I also like to keep some snacks, hand warmers, and PolarPro filters in my bag.
What would you say is your favorite thing about shooting in Minnesota? And favorite season?
The scenery! The North Shore is unmatched for beauty in this area and you can’t take it for granted! Winter stands out as my favorite. Especially in years like this one when the cold temperatures linger and incredible ice starts to form on Lake Superior and the shoreline. It makes for constant new photo opportunities.
Outside of Minnesota, what has been your favorite place to travel to and photograph?
Honestly having gotten into photography seriously right around 2020 has made it so I haven’t really traveled far outside of Minnesota with my camera, yet. But I’ve got a lot of ideas of where I want to visit!
Do you happen to have a favorite photo you’ve ever taken?
My favorite shot is one that’s much different than many of my other landscapes. It’s an abstract, intimate photograph and the interaction of the light on the ice shards really defines the incredible, sharp texture. I also love the natural curve of the ice along the shoreline which I think adds to the image. Obviously the tonality differences across the shot is what makes it stand out too.I was able to accomplish that by standing over the shards from a nearby pier and narrowing in on the ice.
Who are your heroes? (Photography or otherwise)
Recently I’ve really been inspired by Ben Horne. He’s a large format film photographer who takes some stunning landscape photos on his yearly trips to the wonderful National Parks of the West. I’ve learned a lot through his YouTube videos, especially in his methodical approach to the scene. Really a big fan of Alex Strohl and his photography business inspiration.
Any bucket shots on your list?
So many! I’m really excited to make the most out of spring by making some pretty unique waterfall photos. It can be easy to just take a long exposure of a waterfall and call it good, but I want to really differentiate with my compositions and foregrounds. In the short term, I’ve got some ideas specifically about this month’s full moonrise. As well as continuing to learn and photograph some awesome astro photos in 2022. I’ve got a couple of sea arches and sea caves that I’ve made a priority to photograph this year, so also excited about that! So I realize that’s not very specific but that’s kind of how I roll, I have a lot of ideas in my head, it’s just putting the pieces together and getting the final product now!
What’s one piece of advice you would offer someone who is just starting out as a photographer?
Be true to yourself and your photography, don’t follow trends, don’t be afraid to try something new. New perspectives, especially in photography are needed!
This one comes from our previous featured artist Maddy Marquardt who would like to know... To what degree is the safety of your viewers the responsibility of you as a creator? In other words, is it your job as a creator to create only content that is safe to replicate/ otherwise share relevant information about safety, or does all personal responsibility fall on people viewing your content, no matter what?
That’s a great question Maddy! As a photographer, I currently do a lot of photography for myself and the experience, however I do end up sharing many of my photos online on my website or social media. Safety is always a priority when I’m exploring so most of my photos are normally safe behind the scenes. However for photos like the recent icicle shots I do mention the need to wear a helmet and proper gear for anyone interested in trying it out. However in the future I think I will mention some of the safety precautions taken for other shots as well.
What one question would you ask our next featured person? (Anything you like. Doesn’t have to be about photography - it may or may not be a fellow photographer who goes next)
What’s your favorite outdoors experience?
Time to pay it forward... who else would you like to see featured on this blog?
Three people I’d recommend and would love to see on the blog would be Ken Harmon @kenharmonbwca, Ryan Rumpca @ryanrumpca, and Mick and Jimmy Rollins from @brotherbrotherphotography. Ken is a huge inspiration for his constant incredible photographs and I always look forward to seeing a photo of his pop up on my Instagram feed. Ryan’s such a cool guy and the storytelling he demonstrates through his tasteful shots is fantastic and meaningful! And finally about Mick and Jimmy! These guys are awesome! Their unique images and collective, mind blowing compositions make their work really stand out. Not to mention Mick is so eloquent with his words. I think they would be a great feature and would love to learn more about them! Well there's not one but three but all so deserving of being featured in my opinion!
Thank you so much for your time.
Thanks for having me on the blog! It was a pleasure!