©Kurt Budliger

Order Out of Chaos

When it comes to creating compelling landscape and nature photography, Kurt Budliger is in the less-is-more camp.

“It is easy to become overwhelmed by the entirety of a scene and want to include everything that’s interesting in a single image,” says the 51-year-old. “With too many elements competing for attention, none of them gain prominence. And that can be confusing to a viewer. While I admire an epic landscape photograph, it is the intimate compositions—the vignettes of the larger landscape—that really excite me.”

Budliger, who’s based in Vermont, has taught photography for several decades. He’s visited and led workshops and tours in such exotic locales as Patagonia, Iceland, and Death Valley, as well as in more familiar stomping grounds throughout New England.

To see Budliger preach what he practices, I recently joined him and six of his students as he led a morning workshop near the ski resort town of Stowe in northern Vermont.

©Kurt Budliger

The group has risen before 5 a.m. this morning to capture a grand landscape image at nearby Groton State Forest that includes ponds, distant mountains, and a stunning sunrise. By 10 a.m., with cameras and tripods in hand, they’re fanning out throughout the birch, maple, and hemlock forests of Smuggler’s Notch, a historic and picturesque pass through the Green Mountains, just north of Stowe. The skies are slightly overcast, and a soft light bathes the trees in a subtle, warm glow. “This light is not too intense; it’s the perfect condition for capturing some intimate scenes,” says Budliger.

As I walk with him through the boulder-strewn forest, he explains why he loves leading workshops in Vermont and introducing students to the region. “We don’t have the epic scenes—the massive national parks with craggy, towering mountains and rugged landscapes—that they do out West. But what we do have is plenty of more intimate landscapes, the type you have to get off the beaten path to discover. I’ve often said Vermont is like an English muffin.”

A muffin?

“It’s full of nooks and crannies; those hard-to-find vignettes that I find so appealing. You have to explore, even wander around, to see what’s available and interesting to photograph. As I’ve told my students, as you walk around, you need to ask yourself, ‘What patterns, lines, colors, shapes, or textures catch my eye? Is there a story of this location I would like to tell?’ There’s an added benefit to this questioning; the more you look, the more you see.”

©Kurt Budliger

We stop to chat with one of his workshop students, Kevin Armstrong, an accomplished and experienced photographer from Long Island and frequent attendee at Budliger’s workshops. He’s set up his tripod on a small rocky rise to photograph a birch tree that’s bathed in light and shadows. Budliger looks through Armstrong’s viewfinder and tells him, “Nice, Kevin. I like the way you have those tree limbs coming in from the edges, leading the eye in. And that light, with that dark background, gives a lot of nice contrast.”

“I still have to figure out where I will focus,” says Armstrong, and the two discuss options. Then Budliger offers, “As far as depth of field goes, you have that shadowed background, and even if that goes a little soft, the leaves and branches will be hot. If you need to pull shadow detail, you can.”

“I don’t want to see anything in the background. I want that to be black,” says Armstrong.

“Let it go into the shadow and simplify it,” says Budliger.

“Perfect, thanks,” says Armstrong as he clicks his shutter.

©Kurt Budliger

Leaving Armstrong for another student, Budliger tells me, “That’s a great example of a less-is-more vignette. Nature is a pretty cluttered place, and a lot of our work involves making order out of chaos. Choosing what to eliminate from your composition is often just as important as deciding what to include.”

Nearby, Budliger stops and looks through the viewfinder of Peter Jonson from New Jersey, who is hoping to shoot an arty close-up of a bright green, giant fern. “Yeah man! Very nice,” says Budliger. “You’ve done a great job of arranging the elements. Have you shot it yet?”

“No,” says Jonson. “I was going to focus stack.”

“I don’t know if you need to,” says Budliger.

“I’m at f/8 right now and 1/60th of a second. I moved my ISO up to 1,250.”

“I think you can pull it off in one frame,” advises Budliger. He points to the bottom of the fern and says, “Focus about here. With a slowish shutter speed, the issue is going to be waiting out the breeze. You should be OK, but if you’re not, then I would say go ahead and focus stack it. But that’s going to be a pain in the neck because these things need to be totally still from frame to frame to frame in order to line up to do the focus stack.”

“Well, right now I am at f/8. Not going to work, huh?” asks Jonson.

“No, that is not going to work.”

 Jonson changes to f/16 and adjusts his focus point.

“Go for it. Pop it,” says Budliger. “Perfect!”

©Kurt Budliger

Spend any time with Budliger, and it’s clear that the Albany, New York, native is a born teacher. Indeed, it’s in his DNA. “My father and mother were both teachers,” he explains. “And my wife, my sister, and her husband are also teachers.” He himself graduated from Colorado State University, and after earning a master of science in teaching became a public school teacher.

In 1999 Budliger and his wife moved to Vermont, where he taught middle school science and began doing commercial photography. “I taught science but also did everything from newspaper photography to portraiture to weddings,” he says. “I eventually stopped teaching and decided to devote myself to nature and landscape photography.” His work has been published in magazines including Outside, Vermont Life, Outdoor Photographer, and by the Nature Conservancy, among others.

Today he earns the bulk of his income from his much-in-demand photo tours, workshops, and individual critiquing sessions. He also teaches digital photography at the Community College of Vermont. “I really enjoy the interaction with photography students and love helping people learn something and have an experience they might not have otherwise had,” he says. “It’s all about assessing people’s skills and helping them move to the next plateau.”

For the past 15 years he’s enjoyed leading photo workshops and tours. “They are a lot of fun because you get to take people to amazing places, and they are also super excited to be there,” he explains. “Whether it’s in Patagonia, the coast of Maine, or Iceland, I like the experience of being with a group of like-minded people, being able to teach them and share in their camaraderie as we chase the light and make great pictures.”

His large roster of repeat customers is a testament to his expertise both behind the camera and in the classroom. “Kurt is a generous teacher, and it’s so rewarding to see what he sees,” says Kevin Armstrong. “Like many of his students, I’ve learned so much at his classes and being able to look through his viewfinder—seeing how he composes his images—in the field.”

©Kurt Budliger

While learning the technical aspects of photography is important, Budliger explains that developing an eye and a vision—“the soul of photography”—is what separates a master photographer from the rest. And one way to do that is to get off the beaten path: “I don’t want myself or my students to have the same experience everyone else has. If you just go to the big, iconic spots that everyone and their brothers have gone to and set up your tripod, all your photos will look like theirs. We need to explore to create unique, meaningful photographs that fulfill our artistic visions. That’s something I hope to teach all my students.”

Noted landscape and nature photographer Ian Plant is a longtime friend and says that Budliger is perfectly suited to teach and inspire students. “Kurt excels at seeing shapes within the landscape and figuring out a way to organize those shapes to create an effective visual design,” Plant says. “The ability to do this allows him to capture the beauty of his subjects in ways that most photographers just wouldn’t see on their own. This is true even when he is photographing landscapes that others might find to be less inspiring; Kurt finds a way to produce something powerful nonetheless.” 

Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.