A Zeal for Wilderness

The Photographs of Marc Adamus

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There is, perhaps, a certain irony to the success of the richly colored, superbly composed photographs of Marc Adamus. He was interested in the wilderness— and quite familiar with it—well before he was interested in photography, and is completely selftaught. “I have absolutely no formal training,” the 30-year-old admits. “I learned by participating in forums, and going to shows and asking lots of questions.”

His father is an environmental scientist, and an avid bird-watcher, so the Corvallis, Oregon-based Adamus grew up hiking from an early age. In fact, he compares photography to birding. Both activities are like “a treasure hunt,” Adamus says. “You’re looking for that one rare moment, and it requires patience, scouting, and developing a relationship to your subject.”

In his early twenties, Adamus (who by then had received a Canon AE-1 as a gift) discovered the work of noted outdoorsman and nature photographer Galen Rowell, and his focus on photography rapidly intensified. “My wilderness trips became photography first, so I’d repeat locations over and over again until I got the shot,” he relates. “I kept lists of places I needed to photograph, and what times would be best to do it, to build my portfolio.”

Having built his portfolio, Adamus now has “a desire to create images from the places that mean a lot to me,” such as Oregon’s High Desert. He nevertheless keeps his lifestyle “as spontaneous as possible” so he can go photograph whenever the weather is right or the opportunity for a wilderness trip presents itself. His dedication has been paying off, with his work appearing in numerous magazines, as well as calendars, books, and advertising. This success comes at a price, however, as people discover the places Adamus loves through his photographs.

In the desert of southeast Oregon, for instance, Adamus says he never used to see anyone else when he visited. Now that his photographs of it have appeared in books and calendars put out by National Geographic, “I see people there all the time,” he says. “It’s hard to find solitude there now; it diminishes it to some degree.”

As an environmentalist, he finds this somewhat troubling, because the more people go to a remote place, the more it is damaged. At the same time, he notes that “if people like the kinds of pictures I take, it will get them out into the wilderness, and that will change their lives. We’re so bound by technology and our work schedule, our lifestyle of fast-paced gratification—wilderness teaches you to step back and enjoy. So even if people just go out to take a shot, it gets them more into nature preservation.”

As he photographs, Adamus looks for images with “contrasts and transitions, layers and patterns” because they create depth, “which I’m a huge fan of—depth is one of the most important things in a landscape photo because the photo is actually flat.” To that end, when he’s using a wide-angle lens, he often looks for strong lines to create recession. When working with the flatter effect of a telephoto lens, he searches for layers and patterns to stack in order to create depth.

While he began with film, Adamus has been firmly ensconced in digital since November 2005. “Photoshop is very important to me,” he says. “It’s a way of impressing your vision onto a scene; the image the camera takes is just a starting point.” To infuse scenes with his vision, Adamus does a lot of manual blending to get a wide dynamic range and rich color; he shuns the use of automated HDR because he doesn’t like the look.

In addition, he sometimes uses a variation of a technique originally created by Michael Orton that creates areas of blur and detail by layering a blurred, contrasty version of an image over the sharp original at a barely perceptible 5% opacity. “It develops luminosity,” Adamus explains. “It gives a glow to the image that the camera doesn’t capture.” He also does subtle burning and dodging “to create a path through the image.” He considers this effect when printing as well. One technique he sometimes uses for exhibiting is to print the image on super-glossy paper, then put the print behind non-glare glass. “It seems like a contradiction,” he says, “but the combination gives the image a real three-D depth and luminosity.” This technique requires knowing how a piece is going to be lighted, however, so when he is selling prints, not knowing how the buyer will light them, he usually prints images on matt cotton rag.

The ultimate goal is to replicate the mood of the place where the photograph was taken. “I want a viewer to be able to step right into my images,” he says. “I want to get them out into the wilderness and change their lives.”