Photographer Stefan Panaitescu Has Never Used Photoshop In His Life

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My name is Panaitescu Stefan, and I never used Photoshop in my life. And I’m not even going to give you time to recover from the shock and keep going with it. More than 90% of the pictures I’ve used on my social media, site, published articles, social media features were jpeg edits. Not until recently (September) did I ever use filters, masks, brushes in my pictures, and even though I am starting to use how to learn them, what I post on the internet are still tweaked jpegs.

I’ve never merged photos in any software, and the closest I came to stacking is done in-camera using two different focus points blended together in one jpeg(my cameras don’t allow this kind of picture to be saved in raw format)

I never used HDR functions.

Under 0.5% of my photos were taken using polarizers (I don’t own one), ND filters, or night filters (I do own a few cheap ones, but I almost never use them). I can find other “never have I ever” things, but I guess the list is pretty decent as it is now, so we can move further. 

And since I started with such a long list of NO’s, I guess it would be a shame to use anything else but straight out of camera jpegs in this article. Yes, that is right. No alterations, no changes, no cropping, nothing. Jpegs directly from my cameras. 

If I have to describe myself in one word, I will use “scholar.” 

I think that amateur or professional sound a bit limited, and even though there are amazing “pro” photographers out there, if you ask them, they would certainly agree that photography is a thing that constantly evolves, where you constantly need to push yourself more, to create more, to learn new things and so on. 

Already knowing my appetite for not editing photos, it would not come as a surprise to find out that my gear list is rather small. I have two cheap Fuji bodies, two cheap lenses, one tripod, and a couple of filters. 

This covers about 99% of what I am shooting.

During the pandemic, I have acquired a few things for studio work, but since I am still new at this, I will not spend so much time talking about them now as opposed to the gear I am regularly using.

Why did you get into photography? 

This is rather simple, actually. All my life, I have worked in an office. Regardless of the job title I had, I was confined to a small place, sometimes with no windows, in which I spent hours playing with excel documents or Powerpoint presentations. I had no room for building, for being creative, for doing something different.

I use photography to create memories. I use photography to catch happy moments. I use photography to make me think more and open my eyes and brain to new possibilities.

I use photography to teach myself patience (you’ll need huge amounts of that as a landscape photographer), and I use photography to teach me to react fast(shooting sports, cars, planes).

I got into photography to capture the beautiful world around me and try to create.

Which photographers are your biggest influencers?

I don’t follow many photographers, but the few I chose inspire me and help me up to my game in the last years.

I guess that number one place goes to Sean Tucker, who does not feel like a teacher but feels to me as a friend trying to push you, make you aware of things, help you learn and be better.

My list is small, and it comprises  Andy Mumford, Ian Worth, Nigel Danson, and Craig Roberts.

Lately, I have been watching Alister Benn, and I really enjoy his work and teachings, so I guess he will stay with me for a long time also.

I guess the most important thing I learned from all these amazing photographers is that I should stop stressing about my gear and its limitations and rather try to use the pros, the advantages, build upon them and advance in my knowledge.

I won’t lie and say that I don’t often dream of a full-frame mirrorless but watching them create art with anything from a toy camera, to phones, to expensive cameras makes me realize how little should I worry now about specs and limitations and how much I should focus on what is really important: Composition, lightning, telling a beautiful story in my pictures. 

How long have you been shooting? How do you feel you’ve evolved since you started? 

You see… My story as a photographer is short—just 3 years. And for many, this will come as a shock when you find out that I am 39 years of age. 

So I can honestly say photography, creating images, hasn’t been with me for a long time. I can say for sure that after these three years, I am positive that photography will take a good portion of my life from now on. 

As always, upon discovering a thing I enjoy so much, during these years, I tried to make up for the huge gap, for the years I spent away from shooting and followed other passion for a long time. 

I feel that I have come a long way. I am not, by all means, a “pro,” but I learned a lot and I keep reading, watching videos, taking courses, and shooting as often as I can. 

If I look from where I started and where I am now, I can see a huge difference from carelessly taken pictures, mostly on phones and point and shoots, to actually investing in gear and education and studying each destination before getting there, taking my time to compose, waiting for the “perfect” light and so on. 

I am more confident now and went from pictures taken only in auto to using 50% of the time aperture priority and 50% manual shooting. 

Tell us about your photographic identity. You, as a person have an identity that fundamentally makes you who you are. Tell us about that person as a photographer.

I am real. I am aware that I don’t master any photography genre, and it is too soon to say I would love to spend my life photographing landscapes, or maybe I will spend it shooting street or sports. 

What I know for sure is this. Whatever I shoot, it has to be real. It has to look real and feel real. I guess this is why Photoshop or hard editing are not catching on me. I have the desire to show the world as it is.Because it is beautiful as it is. I don’t need to add so many different things so that the original is lost. 

All my life, with its ups and downs, I kept believing in always expressing myself. It did cost me relationships, jobs, friendships, but this is me. And this is my personality as a photographer also. 

You can take any of my photos, look at them and be sure that they are not forged, not corrected, not enhanced in a way that you won’t recognize that place. 

Tell us about the gear you’re using.

I am shooting Fuji at the moment and own two cameras(an X-T20 and an X-T1). I have gifted my girlfriend my old X-E2 and an 18-55 kit lens, leaving just two cameras for me. 

Next to these two, I have a kit lens(18-55) and the cheapest long zoom from Fuji, the XC 50-230. Last month, I sold my 23 and 35 f2 primes because I used them so little in the last year that it was not wise for me, financially, to keep them anymore. 

To finish my list I also own a Manfrotto Be Free tripod, 3 ND filters from Rollei(round, screw in ones), and an Astroklar filter, also from Rollei. 

2020 brought new challenges for all of us so instead of traveling, to see new places as usual I had to find things closer to home for my photographs. That is why two macro extension tubes from Meike, one Godox flash and trigger, one Godox softbox, and a Manfrotto 5001B stand arrived in my possession. 

However, to my shame, I must confess I did not get too involved in macro or studio shooting, staying faithful to travel and landscape photography, the things I love the most. I trully believe that my gear is just gear. Of course Fuji jpegs are renowned, but I can take decent photos with just about any decent camera. 

While I am sure I couldn’t pass famous challenges like Sean Tucker or Zach Arias did I guess that by holding my Fuji X-T20 or holding a Sony a6000 series camera, the results would be pretty much the same. 

What I do love about my Fuji cameras is tweaking and modifying a huge amount of parameters in-camera with simple button presses or wheel changes and get to that picture that represents best what I am photographing. For a while, I used fuji custom-made simulations for my photos but lately, I am just using a profile simulation close to the raw file I will get and play with that. 

Film simulations are fun and a wonderful way to shoot and get great pictures, but I found that by using a film simulation on a shoot, my whole batch of pictures would come out of the camera looking in a certain way. And this is not what I want.

I am trying to make each picture pop and be special in its own way. Of course, I can make the sky blue or the grass green in all the pictures, but that wouldn’t be 100% accurate, so nowadays I have 2 flows for my pictures.

1. When it comes to a landscape, I take my time and arrange the jpeg as close as I can to the real scene. If it is a very demanding scene, I will also edit the raw, but the jpeg is enough 95% of the time.

2. If it comes to travel, street, I will study the scene, pick a film simulation, and shoot with it, worrying only about exposure compensation, light, etc.

Natural light or artificial light? Why?

Love being out so natural light for me. Ever since I was a kid I spent more than half of my life outside, so natural light is my first choice. I bought some things to help me start my journey into artificial light, but I didn’t get the chance to use them properly.

I just love natural light in all its phases. It doesn’t matter if it is morning, sunset or the harsh afternoon sun, I love how it affects all the things that surround me, how it modifies the angles, sometimes the composition and so for me natural light is the way to go in 99% of the times.

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

In a nutshell, because I am doing what I like. I truly think that watching something come out of your hands, be it a sculpture, a painting, writing a book, shooting a photo, is one of the most satisfying things in life. Knowing you did that, that that was your vision, that you followed it and created that thing. I honestly think most if not all people have a creative side.

Now it could be taking photos, it could be writing books, it could be designing toys or clothes, etc. But we all have it in us and unfortunately, I don’t think there are more than 10% of people in the world who use their creations to earn a living.

Most of us follow a pattern, get a job, a house, work year after year and many forget or abandon their creative side. For me, creating, making, building things helps me mentally. Helps me explore things, helps me read and study, and become a better-rounded person.

Do you feel more of a creator or a documenter? Why? How does the gear help you do this? 

This is tough. Hmm, I honestly must admit that I am now more of a documenter. There is no shame in that, but I am working on, trying to build more and more on my creative side. It is hard switching from doing repetitive actions all day in your work to creating in the small amount of time you have available each day. But this is something I am really working on. 

To be completely honest, photography changed a lot for me. Until taking it up, I could say that I just strolled through life without paying too much attention to its colors and shapes. 

Morning was morning and it was that dreadful time when your alarm clock rang calling you to work. Now, morning means more than just my alarm clock. It means a photography opportunity, a beautiful sunrise, an empty place, etc. 

This is where the Fuji system really shines. I mean, being so small, you can take it anywhere with you. You always have your camera with you. Being so easy to operate is another plus. All those dials and buttons and switches actually made me understand photography’s technical side in an easier way. Being able to dial in the settings and look in the viewfinder and see how the jpeg will look is a huge help. 

From the moment I finished setting and pressed the shutter I know what I am getting and this is a game-changer. 

I don’t have to think that I will edit the picture later. I already know that about 90% of the work is already done. 

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? Tell us about your processes both mentally and mechanically.

Many people will disagree with me on this one, but I need to be happy with it myself first when taking a picture. That could mean even breaking famous rules like the rule of thirds or where to place the horizon, etc. 

My usual flow for creating pictures looks like this.

Enjoy the place. There are just a few exceptions where I would rush and take pictures and admire after(think of being the first one to reach the Spanish Steps in Rome). But other than that I like to soak up in the scene and look around.  Enjoying the place also means walking the place. I am pretty sure you know that the best composition is always around the next hill, next step, or next corner. So I set a perimeter and walk it. 

Depending on the popularity of the place I am taking pictures in, I will do the first couple of pictures as the classics do. Yes, I will photograph Big Ben from the opposite side, from that small alley/crack in the wall to get my classic shots. I will start looking around for things I like. For special angles, for patterns of leaves, birds, snow, anything else that pops in my eyes and that could mean a new perspective on the place. 

I will try different compositions, add scale, shoot from above, from the ground, using different angles, and going through the entire range of my zoom lenses. I will browse through the shots I took, briefly, trying to feel if anything is missing, if there was something that escaped me. 

I will keep paying attention to as much as I can around me. How many times you thought you were done just to have a ray of light hit that wall, that castle, that bale of hay and create a stunning picture? So, no matter what I am doing I am always glimpsing around, trying to see what’s happening around me. 

When it comes to the mechanical side things, break down in two categories and it all depends on what I am shooting. 

Am I shooting travel/street? Then I leave my camera in aperture priority, set my lens to f 5.6 to f8, set my ISO on auto 200 to 800, and just play with the focus. 

Usually, I am on autofocus if I am photographing streets, murals, buildings, markets but things change a bit if I am photographing people. 

Here I would either use autofocus and high-speed shooting(the X-T20 is pretty good at shooting fast) or use zone focusing and manual focus but this is somehow the last resort since this is not a technique I got the chance to practice a lot. 

Am I shooting landscapes? Then first things first I will place my tripod on the ground. However, I will not attach the camera to it. I will use the camera, look around, search for compositions, then when I am satisfied I will bring the tripod to the place I need it to be.  I will set the ISO at 200 (lowest on my Fuji) and only crank it up if the wind is blowing or the light is falling. 

Depending on the depth of the scene (and if I took my glasses or not) I will use autofocus or manual focus. Mostly I will set the aperture around f8 then pick my focus point on auto and use manual focus to pin it and make the scene sharper. 

My AF+MF option is always on in my camera and landscape photography is the place where I get to use this option the most. If I am shooting like this then the exposure compensation dial becomes my friend and I am not scared to use it. However, if I am shooting fully manual I forget about it and just adjust the shutter speed until I get the result I want. 

Please walk us through your processing techniques. Also, tell us about how you’re achieving your look without Photoshop if you’re comfortable with that.

For me, this is the easiest part of the whole article. Since I don’t do heavy editing my process looks the same in just about 99% of the cases. Also, most of my pictures are edited on my phone or on my iPad using Lightroom. 

A blasphemy for Fuji guys but I am talking jpegs here not RAF files. However, this will change since I got a new monitor and I started using it more and more lately. 

First, I will go into geometry and level my picture. This is always my first thing on the list. 

Then I would go into optics and remove chromatic aberrations and enable lens corrections. In Lightroom mobile on jpegs, Fuji lenses are not shown but I sometimes use an 18-55 lens from Canon and it works well. The third step is always cropping. I usually crop very little or not at all so it does not have a huge impact on my photo size and quality if I wish to print. 

Now here is the part where most people start to play with the white balance before anything else. If I took my time and carefully played with all options in the camera I will leave the WB untouched since what I saw in the viewfinder looked like what I was trying to get. 

If I am traveling and don’t feel like playing with the WB all the time I would see how I exposed then check daylight and cloudy settings in LR. Most of the time though my WB stays on “as-shot”. 

Having carefully composed the picture I know how it looked in real life and what I need to do to get there. So my next step is to select auto and let the whole light section be picked by Lightroom. 

Then I would study my original jpeg and see how far from the truth I am. If I am not satisfied I will adjust exposure and contrast a bit then work with the whites and blacks being careful not to blow them.

On rare occasions as is with leaves in the fall, I could open the color mix option in the color tab and push some colors out to make them pop more. I rarely pass 10-15 on vibrance and saturation so that’s really not a huge edit. 

The next step is to add a bit of texture and clarity from the effects tab. However, I am using these options in very small amounts and I rarely go over 15 for texture or 15-20 for clarity. When it comes to the details tab I have a certain protocol that I use. 

I have a set of numbers for sharpening, radius, and detail and I set them as default. Then I zoom in and adjust a bit depending on how good the picture looks. 

The last step is masking which to my shame I never knew how to use until a couple of weeks ago. Honestly, I think 99% percent of the pictures I edited in the last three years have a value of 10 when it comes to masking. 

Now I know better and hopefully will look better in my next pictures. So this is basically my editing process which takes about 3 minutes. Might take some time to read but I assure you, it is very short. 

Tell us about the project or portfolio you’re pitching to us.

Even though I have many pictures taken with my two cameras I chose these pictures for a few special reasons. They both represent pictures I took this year, in workshops in Romania. I truly believe that one builds himself as a photographer using what is easily in reach of him. 

Romania is a beautiful country, it is less photographed than others and it costs me less to take pictures here than the Dolomites for example. Second, all these pictures are landscape pictures. Kind of the hardest pictures to shoot in jpeg and not use raw files. 

I am trying to show how nicely a straight out of camera jpeg can look if you try to get it right in the camera. 

Some of the pictures here are taken on Mount Ciucas, about 130 kilometers away from my town. The others are taken in an idyllic location named Holbav in Piatra Craiului Mountains, about 200 kilometers away from my hometown. The pictures from Ciucas were taken in September and the Holbav workshop took place in the final weekend of October. 

These two workshops were chosen carefully by me, and I was extremely happy to join them because these two locations were on my list for a long time. Holbav is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in the country and the Ciucas mountains are in a league of their own. 

Though not very tall or hard to climb, the shapes, the stones, and the views are very different from other mountains in Romania, which makes them a very sought destination. 

On these two shots I wanted different things. In Ciucas I wanted to photograph as much as I could the strange rocks growing from the mountains or use layers in my photography to give my scenes a sense of depth. 

In Holbav I tried using my zoom mostly, focusing, isolating parts of the scenery, trying to catch the last colors of the autumn and the beautiful contrasts they bring. Many of the pictures taken in Ciucas fare around 35 to 50 mm with the occasional exception of 100.

However, most of the photos I took in Holbav go well over 250mm, and many of them are at around 345mm, my max for my long zoom lens. Lately, I have discovered that I rarely go under 35mm even when shooting landscapes. My favorite lens is the long zoom one and I love the fact that I can pick and isolate a scene without having to worry about what is around.

What made you want to get into your genre?

Well, I grew up outside. I think until I got my first job, I spent 10 12 hours outside every day. It doesn’t matter if it was outside with my friends or going to the sea or climbing mountains, I was always outside. Then work came and with it about 10 hours daily of getting ready, going to work, working, getting back. 

So less time to go and spend time outside. And after years and years of travel outside the country, I realized that it wasn’t enough. I needed more trips, more going out, more staying outside, in nature. 

I realized that I wanted to get away from the city’s agitation in my free time, go to secluded places, be away from lots of people, horns, trams, and cars. Even more, due to my work, I am heavily invested in environmental studies, carbon footprinting, and so on. And as sad as this may sound I really wanted to capture in my pics places that could possibly change or disappear in the future. 

When I travel to my country I see the devastation that deforestation brought, I see entire versants of mountains stripped of their green and I see how bad some lakes look like due to waste and pollution. 

So, all of these brought me into landscape photography. I love nature, I love how beautiful nature is, and in a way I am aware that through my work I am in a way documenting this beauty. 

What motivates you to shoot?

All my life I had but a couple of passions. I was, and still am to some degree, involved in fitness and for the last years, photography is a big part of my life. And while I don’t have many passions, I make sure that I always try to get better and better at them. 

If fitness is not the object here for photography it is rather simple. This passion has let me see the world with new eyes. It has made me look for different angles, always trying to see new compositions, always wanting more and more. 

Each time I go out, I might be surprised, I might find a new angle, find a better composition, and improve. So that is one huge motivation for me. 

Explain why the readers want to see your work., or why your project is really cool.

Diversity. There are millions of pictures from famous places like the Dolomites, Lofoten or the Grand Canyon. And while those places are amazing and I honestly wish to see them also, the world is more than that. 

There are so many beautiful places that people don’t know about or they are just starting to hear about them. And Romania really has a lot to offer and I think or at least I hope that people who love to travel, who love to explore, who love to take pictures, to enjoy this project of mine. 

Also, I honestly hope that this kind of local series like mine to catch on and soon to be able to see more pictures, taken by locals, in beautiful countries like Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, etc. 

I am sure people will be surprised to see how many beautiful places these countries and mine hold. 

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Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.