If Mountain Photography has an Epicenter, it must be Banff

While we are working away this week, or trying our hardest to avoid work, the Banff Mountain Photographer Residency is underway until September 7th.  There’s been some great photography coming out of the Banff Center already this year, and the photographer’s Residency is no different.  It’s certainly too late to join this time around, however the residency is a yearly event and open to any photographer willing to apply.  Here at Mountain Life we live and breath photography, so we tracked down Lynn Martel, one of the participants to get an in-depth look into one of Canada’s best photography workshops.


Group of Banff Photography Residence in front of lake
The team gearing up for the week. ©Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity

We’re excited to get ahold of you Lynn! Sounds like you’re currently at the residency right now. When did you first hear about the program and make the decision to apply?

I have known about this program for years, mostly because I have lived in Canmore/Banff for three decades, and the Banff Mountain Book and Film Festival have been part of my life for at least 25 years. I started as a volunteer, have written dozens of articles about the festivals over the years and interviewed many of the festival guests, have participated in Chic Scott’s storytelling panel and presented my book, Expedition to the Edge as a guest of the Book Festival in 2008 (plus a number of other roles). Last fall I participated in the Mountain and Wilderness Writing Residency, which I had also known about for years from other writers who had taken it. And I know other photographers who have taken this photography workshop. With the writing residency, I waited until I had what I felt was the right project, applied and was thrilled to be accepted. And I’m still very much a writer.

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But photos are another element of storytelling. I’ve always enjoyed taking photos, but have only begun to work at it seriously (it mostly never feels like work except when I’m carrying my tripod into the backcountry – heavy!) for the past three years, with a better camera and learning how to use it. While the writing residency was on my radar for a long time prior to applying, it never occurred to me that I would ever be interested in the photography workshop until after the writing one, which I learned so much from. I was quite excited when I was accepted, because I had no idea whether my photos were strong enough yet. But I learned so much from the writing residency and it really helped me advance my book project, I felt I would have lots to gain from the photography workshop too. And it feels like such a blessing to spend a week in an environment where I’m surrounded by others who share the passion, the drive, the need to create, while you put much of your everyday life on hold. And fantastic to be walking down a hallway or on one of the Banff Centre’s forest walkways and cross paths with a couple of guys talking about playing the cello!


Moraine pool, Yoho National Park.


Now that it’s finally happening, what are your initial impressions?

I’m really appreciating the diversity of the group, plus Ace Kvale, our faculty. The participants include people at different stages of their careers, and with different interests. In the case of the photography workshop, some of the participants have really good technical / editing skills and advanced knowledge of computer editing programs such as Lightroom; others shoot more landscapes, more people, even architecture. Some have projects that are more fully developed or conceptualized than others. There’s something to learn from everyone here, not just from Ace Kvale a highly experienced US photographer who has travelled the world with his camera – who has tons to share!! Lots of practical career advice, which is extra useful for us self-employed creatives. There is also a range of generations and ages – the youngest person here is mid-20s, and shooting with film! One from Peru, Americans and Canadians. So much creativity to inspire each other and to provide valuable feedback to help each of us nudge our projects forward. It’s so valuable to be part of a group speaking the language of creativity and working on projects. You don’t always have that in your everyday life. It’s valuable to be in an environment for a whole week where we eat, sleep, think and talk about our craft, our passion. And, since I’m at the early stages of working on my photography, being part of this will help me develop a good foundation to build upon.


Glacial moraines are places of many gorgeous waterfalls. Yoho National Park.
Glacial moraines are places of many gorgeous waterfalls. Yoho National Park.


If you don’t mind, can you explain a little about where you see yourself on the spectrum of your photography? Are you recently getting into it, or has it been a lifelong passion? Do you feel like this week will be building upon years of growing knowledge and experience or somewhat of a budding outlet of creativity and tons yet to learn?

I’ve always enjoyed taking photos, and it’s been a part of my life since I was a teenager, but back in the days of film buying film and paying for processing, it was prohibitively expensive. Experimenting and shooting enough images to improve my skills was not affordable for me. So, digital changed the game for me. First with a small point and shoot, now with a Sony a6000 mirrorless (for three years, and now with a good lens – yup, just one!). I spend all my weekends adventuring in the mountains – have been for 30+ plus years – some days sport climbing or mountain biking close to town, but as many as possible in the backcountry, ski touring in winter and backpacking or mountaineering in summer. And the backcountry is where I am most inspired to take photos. There is so much magic and wonder in the wilderness landscape, and I derive so much pleasure and joy and sometimes, when I capture an image I’m really happy with, sense of accomplishment from photographing the spectacular places and elements of nature I see as I travel through the landscape. The more overnights, the better!

In the past couple of summers I have developed a practice of going out on one or two-night backcountry trips by myself just to take photos, not to climb anything or accomplish any physical goals. Just to get up early and take photos, and do it again before boiling water for dinner. While I still absolutely love adventures with my honey or with friends, these solo photo missions have become my bliss. So, it’s been an evolution. I’m also working on a book project about glaciers, so that has inspired another level of motivation for me to take not just photos, but the best images I can of the magical glacier landscapes while they exist, and as they constantly change… Our planet is nothing without our natural places and wilderness ecosystems, so I believe strongly that any way of encouraging people to be in love with nature and be inspired to protect and preserve our natural places is a worthy pursuit, one I hope I can convey through my photos.

So, this week is one of absorbing and learning as much as I can while I create the photography component of my next book. It’s the ultimate professional development opportunity.


What is it like being involved in such an experience with other photographers? Is it a collective atmosphere of learning or mostly a flow of knowledge from the instructors.

Going forward, it’s just been three days, but already I’ve learned several valuable things about how to improve my photo presentations. As a writer and a photographer, sharing presentations is a significant part of what I do, so learning how to improve those skills is super valuable. And that’s just one of the topics we’ve spent time talking about and sharing suggestions on. And yup, I will be bursting to spend more time working on my photography by the time the workshop is over!! Plus I can already see that I’ll be keeping in touch with some of other participants (as I have with the writers’ workshop) after it’s over. It’s a win-win-win experience.


Moon over ice, Bugaboo Provincial Park.
Moon over ice, Bugaboo Provincial Park.


We can only imagine that after this week your psych for photography will probably be super high. Any upcoming plans to stretch your new photo legs?

For sure my stoke will be super high. But, since I earn my living as a writer, the challenge will be to find time to work on my photography while getting my writing assignments finished on deadline! After just three days though, I have learned quite a few things I needed to know or know more about, so I’m really looking forward to incorporating them into my work. I do have a two-day/night hut trip planned just to take photos, so I’m extra stoked for that trip, for sure!


Thanks for your time Lynn and enjoy the rest of your week at the residency!

For a full immersive experience check out the full festival Oct 27 – Nov 4, 2018.