Photographer Spotlight: Payton Pan
Posted by Caroline Janes on 27th Dec 2021
Payton Pan has become a master of combining his passion for photography with other interests in his life. From photographing rare animal occurrences, spotlighting social and environmental causes, to experimenting with intertwining photography and poetry, Pan is a talented individual that pushes the boundaries of his passions. I corresponded with Pan via email to learn more about his beginnings and journey with photography as follows.
How did you get started in photography?
Payton Pan: Around three years ago, I inherited an old and used Nikon DSLR camera as a gift from my cousin. Without any knowledge of its inner workings, I went out to take some pictures of a reservoir near my house. It amazed me how I could instantly capture a moment: all of its colors, motion, and warmth. And even if the first attempts came out oddly exposed or out of focus, I fell in love with the ability to preserve the happiness of that fall day. I’ve been working on it nearly every day since, and I’ve learned something new with each shot.
Your website almost feels more like an exhibition of photography and poetry rather than a portfolio, tell me more about your process of combining photography with poetry.
PP: It never felt right to reduce my photographs to a simple, rational caption like is seen so often. If any writing should accompany these pieces of art, I felt like that writing should be an art of its own. Early on, I began adding short, three-lined poems to each photograph, as a way to tastefully add context to some of the sprawling landscapes. But while I’ve matured as an artist, the poetry has flown longer and freer, mimicking the depth of the photos that I now produce.
How does your passion for environmental advocacy influence your photographic endeavors?
PP: Ever since I was a much younger boy, I’ve been particularly concerned with the state of the environment around us. This deep connection to nature stemmed from my travels around the natural world, and it has informed most of my photography, as well as my creative writing. Once I picked up a camera, it didn't take long for environmental advocacy and photography to become one-and-the-same for me. I specifically recall the morning I volunteered with an avian conservation non-profit, photographing the devastating effects of glass architecture on migratory birds. The powerful images that arose from that morning’s volunteer walk turned heads and made me realize how I could use my talent for good. I look forward to continuing these efforts in the future.
Aside from environmental advocacy, it appears you are also passionate about social change. Could you speak more on how you use your photography to advocate for what you believe in?
PP: Even before I was a photographer myself, some of the most inspiring sights for me were the old journalistic photos taken in the wake of big social changes, like wars overseas, or the civil rights movement of the 60s (part of the inspiration for my Black Lives Matter collection). These pictures had some unspoken power capable of transporting viewers into a different time, place, and mindset. To me, the intense emotions of these exposures convey injustice better than any other medium. And I can’t believe in a cause or subscribe to an ideal if I don’t stand up for it. And I can’t call myself a photographer only to take pictures for myself. I have to step boldly, and hopefully inspire others to follow suit.
I understand you’re working on a photo article about the growing battle between fossil fuels and green energy in West Texas. I’d love to hear more about your work toward this so far.
PP: I actually just finished this article and it is now a blog post on my site. The idea was born out of a recent drive through West Texas, where I saw the contrasting sight of old rusty pumpjacks surrounded by freshly installed wind turbines. It led to some discussion on the growing battle that exists between fossil fuels and renewable energy sources, and what it means for working-class Americans across the country. I’d love to continue to expand on this story in the future.
Your photography knows no bounds from astrophotography, landscape photography, wildlife photography and more! What are some of your favorite subjects to capture and what challenges do you encounter with different subjects?
PP: I definitely don’t shy away from any field or subject matter when it comes to creating rewarding exposures. I’m attracted to this diversity not only because it embraces the cosmic grandeur of our Earth and everything on it, but also because it forces me to keep experimenting with new techniques and styles. I’d say the biggest challenge comes from this range itself. It’s certainly difficult to pour yourself into so many different forms of the art, especially when night photography, for example, requires such different equipment than portraiture, or anything else.
You certainly know how to hone in on niche subjects. Your cicada series stood out to me in particular, and I’d love to hear more about it.
PP: The Cicada collection was a project I took on last year when a brood of Magicicadas arrived for the first time in seventeen years. With an occurrence that rare, I felt like I had a duty to timelessly capture these often overlooked creatures. I spent a few weeks seeking out each stage in the cicada life cycle to photograph, which became a lot more involved than I had first imagined. As it turns out, juveniles only shed at night, so a couple of times I found myself climbing trees with my camera in complete darkness. It also took me quite a while to hunt down the arguably most important scene in the narrative: mating. I guess Cicadas are more private than they first let on.
Tell me more about how you usually brainstorm a photo collection. I like the moodiness and framing of each photo in your Worldly Mornings collection. What was the inspiration for this series of photos?
PP: There are two types of collections I create. The first is when I travel somewhere or document a specific event, and a collection is born. Then comes the second type, where I dream up an idea before ever going out with my camera. For Worldly Mornings, I wanted to rise before the sun in a variety of different places, and combine the ethereal qualities of morning light with elements that would mirror them, like water. This idea was forged as an antithesis to my After Dark collection, which has the contrasting makeup of the Earth at night.
What are your go-to pieces of equipment?
PP: For the lengthy ‘starting out’ period, I only had a used Nikon D3500 with a basic 18-55mm lens. The simplicity of this arrangement forced me to get creative and experiment on my own terms until I was truly in need of a new camera. Although the Nikon still holds a special place in my heart, I now mostly use a Sony a7r, which has been awesome in every condition.
I’ve acquired a few new lenses as well, my favorites being the Tamron 17-28mm for wide shots and the Sigma 24-70mm for all the rest. Honorable mentions include my intervalometer and telephoto lens.
My favorite piece of equipment, however, has to be the Neutral Density filter. Blocking out a couple of stops of light has allowed me to expand my reach of exposures and play with very slow shutters. I love this for a variety of shots, from raging waterfalls to bustling city streets.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?
Besides beginning to teach nature photography, I have embarked on a few new projects. In general, I have been starting a lot of environmental advocacy photography work around my area, which has branched off into several other endeavors.
Also, my most comprehensive photography collection to date, Reflections, is currently in the works. Reflections is an investigation of the elements often overlooked by humanity, focusing on water and nighttime. The collection is comprised only of portraiture, which makes it a new and exciting venture for me. When completed in spring 2022, it will ask a variety of questions about humanity’s relationship with the Earth.
You can find more of Payton's work on his website and Instagram.