While it’s easy to find beautiful outdoor photography on Instagram, it is certainly unique to find it as true and authentic as we have found Heather Aften’s (@haften) work to be. Having spent most of her life immersed in nature and several years in the wild beauty of Alaska, Heather presents a remarkable perspective of the world as she takes in the beauty around her. Her Mextures work speaks for itself and often reflects the untouched bits of nature she pauses to capture. We were able to extract from her some amazing details about her life and her passion for capturing the outdoors. Read along!
My name is Heather, and my husband and I are the lucky parents of two great kids. When I'm not washing their clothes or buying their breakfast cereal or quizzing them on their spelling words, I am running or hiking on a trail in the woods, usually with a dog or two. I have lived almost all of my life in the Northwest corner of the United States, which means that I have a deep love of rain, salmon, and coffee. We recently moved back to the Seattle area after living for seven years in Alaska, and while we miss the daily encounters with wildlife and the wilderness right out our backdoor, we are happy to have landed in this beautiful place.
How did you first become interested in photography?
Photography has always been something I’ve been interested in, in a “some day I will take a class!” sort of way, but until I had an iPhone, it was nothing I ever put any effort into learning. When I got my first iPhone, I (along with everyone else on the planet, it seems) became a “photographer.” With a camera always in my pocket, I was more likely to capture the moose tromping through my backyard or the insane 3:00 p.m. Alaskan sunset right out my window. I was so in love with the beauty of my adopted state that I wanted to take pictures of everything, and Facebook became the natural way to share my Alaskan photos with friends and relatives in the Lower 48, as if to say, “Do you see how incredibly beautiful this place I am living is? Why aren’t you moving here right now?” But even though the iPhone took pretty great pictures, it still didn’t do justice to the beauty all around me. I noticed a few friends were posting interesting pictures with an “Instagram” label, so I went in search of the app. Until that moment, I don’t think I had ever edited a photo in my life. Filters? Lo-Fi? X-ProII? This was amazing stuff! I look like I know what I’m doing! I was hooked.
As I documented our daily lives in Alaska via Instagram, I was also documenting my own transformation, from scaredy-cat city-slicker into a more adventurous Alaskan mama. Now I didn’t just have pictures taken in my own yard, I had pictures of my family skiing into a public use cabin in subzero weather. I had pictures from fishing trips and backcountry ice-skating and trailruns through bear-filled woods. Living in Alaska changed me and my family forever, and my photos were proof of that. I was in love with the state, it’s people, and with the active, outdoor lives we were leading together.
When my husband called me on October 22, 2013 to tell me that he had been laid off from his job and that meant we would probably need to head back south, I was heartbroken. Leaving meant so much more than relocating. It meant giving up the big, wild adventure that we were on, the identities we were forming. Without even really knowing what I was doing, I began a sort of art therapy project. Before this news, picture taking was still a sporadic hobby. As I walked in the woods after the phone call, I snapped a picture of frost-tipped fern. The next day, I captured a view of a moose’s hindquarters sticking out of the bushes as I tiptoed by on the trail behind it with my hiking buddies. The next day it was a dramatic sunset over Mt. Redoubt taken from my deck (while dinner was burning on the stove). Once the pattern was established, I kept at it, taking and posting one picture a day of something that I would miss when I as gone. Having never attempted anything like this, I was surprised at how comforting the process was, and at how important people’s reactions were to me.
At this point in your photographic journey, what precisely does photography mean to you?
I’ve now come to realize that photography is a daily ritual that, for me, is less about the product and much more about the process. Relocated (and feeling dislocated) in Washington, I kept up my once-daily habit, and it forced me to go in search of scenes that stopped me in my tracks, even when I wasn’t in the mood to feel appreciative of my new home. Years ago, I found that I needed to run to maintain not only my physical but my mental health. I think photography is the same; if it is your daily habit to put yourself in the way of beauty, each day delivers a gift, a gift that can shock you out of the blackest of moods. I also believe that always having a camera at the ready is the best way to fall in love with wherever you happen to be. Now I’m in love with this place, too. I saw a lovely quote in a friend’s Instagram gallery from Rachel Carson that seems to sum it all up perfectly: “Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of earth…are never alone or weary of life.”
What has been your favorite photo that you’ve taken so far and what makes it your favorite?
That is just about the hardest question for me to answer. In fact, my friends and family tease me that I overuse that word and everything is my favorite.
The photos I treasure are the ones that replicate experiences that I treasure, so they aren’t always the most technically or even aesthetically pleasing ones. If you’ve ever read any of John Muir’s essays, you know that he was always doing crazy treks and traverses just to "go have a look" at what was out there. He did things like lash himself to the top of a tree in the middle of a huge storm, just to experience the storm’s force and the way the trees negotiated it. I’m no John Muir, but my favorite photos have been taken at moments when I have been pushed to the limit physically or felt a little bit of my weakness in the face of the forces of nature. During my last spring in Alaska, I skied (with two friends and our pack of assorted dogs) three miles out across a frozen lake to the base of a glacier. As we approached the glacier, we skied over the ice that had been refrozen into ripples after a huge chunk of the glacier calved and sent shock waves radiating outward. Car sized chunks of ancient blue ice lay strewn across the frozen surface of the lake. There’s a picture I took that shows a part of the glacier that cascades over a large rock in it’s center. You see the horizontal layers of cloud-streaked blue sky, the ice-blue glacier, the snow-dusted rock, and finally, the flat, opaque surface of the lake. It’s a bit abstract and minimal, as much as a glacier can be, and I love that, but I mostly love that it represents that scary, magnificent, unforgettable day.
After you’ve taken a picture, what does your typical editing process generally look like?
I developed the habit of taking all my pictures with the camera+ app, since back in ancient times I needed it for the straighten and sharpen features. It also has a nice macro function that I like better than the built in camera zoom. If a photo passes muster, it gets saved to my iphone camera roll, and from there I’ll import it into another editing app, which these days is usually Mextures. I am a huge fan of formulas. I have a large collection of formulas that I’ve imported or created on my own, and I’ll try those out on any given photo. I could start from scratch each time, but I find it so much easier to just click through a bunch of formulas until something hits the eye in the right way. Then I start subtracting and refining. Sometimes I’ll add some emulsion or delete a layer, but mostly I play with contrast, exposure, saturation, etc. When I find a combo that works, I save it and start over until I have about four or five completely different versions that I like. Finally, I open them in Instagram, where I sometimes layer on even more filters, or play again with the controls. I hit post when I’ve driven myself crazy with too many different versions and tweaks and I just want to be done with it already.
Do you have some formulas that you’d be willing to share?
Sure! Here are a few of my favorite formulas. I have a few qualms about calling them “mine,” because, as I said, I often start with shared or guest formulas and start adding or subtracting and making fine-tuning changes. Some of these are probably built from someone else’s base. Formula-sharing is caring, right? Sheesh, I hope so!
Haleakela - VDXLEGF - I use this one to darken and increase misty moodiness
Snail - NGYTUMT - I use this one to sharpen, darken, and deepen, and the purple layers make green tones luscious
Leavenworth - BCHQLYW - I developed this one to add some artistic depth to a sort of bland shot I had taken of a snowy road. One thing I like to do with iPhone shots of trees, in which details aren’t very distinct, is to darken and flatten them, and then layer texture over them to make them more interesting.
Changing Creek - MCMILGF - When you just need some flat gray in your life, but you’re not willing to go full-on black and white.
Red Smudge - PWFWAQJ - Missed the sunrise? No problem. Here, I made one for you.
Do you feel like Mextures offers anything unique to your editing process?
I have quite a few editing apps on my phone, but Mextures is pretty much all I use anymore. I like that there’s just so much I can do with it. Listen, before I started all this, I had no idea what half the controls on Mextures meant. Structure? Emulsion? Mextures has been like a photography class in which I’ve learned by doing. I got to borrow some really lovely formulas from some great people (thanks Ryan Brien and Aubrey Blackburn!) in the guest formula section and then open them up to see what they were made of and then try out my own variations. I also like that I can edit my photos in this app and end up with something that looks really realistic and natural or something that looks highly stylized and artistic, depending upon my desired effect. Somedays all I want is a little “Franklin,” but other days I want to Mexture the hell out of those pictures. Last but not least, I think I’m also loyal to Mextures because you guys do such a nice job of supporting and encouraging the folks that use the app. You feature a huge amount of people on Instagram, and not just “celebrities" and not just photos that all look the same. You encourage collaboration through your hashtags and sharing through your formulas, and you’ve always been supportive of me, right down to the first photo I ever posted with a Mextures hashtag. I about died when I got that Mextures “like" right after downloading the app. You had me with that first heart.
Is there anything in particular you hope to accomplish through your photography?
My time spent with Instagram and Mextures feels much more like an escape than an accomplishment on most day, but I can’t feel too guilty about an escape that connects me to people all around the world and lets me test out a new form of creative expression. I guess there are two things that I want to accomplish with this little obsession of mine. First, I want to use photography as a way to go through life with wonder and appreciation. To live in the world that way feels like something worth striving for. Second, I would count it as a great accomplishment if anyone looked at my photos and said to themselves, “I think I could do that.” I’m a bit of an evangelist when it comes to running and hiking and just being outside in general, so if I can inspire a person or two to try a new hike or jog on a trail instead of a treadmill, I’d be pretty happy. I’m not one of those folks who thinks we shouldn’t share the locations of our photos so that those places don’t get over-run with others trying to take the same shot. I’m not generally in those kinds of places anyway—much as I’d like to be—but I think we need as many people as possible to visit our natural and wild spaces, fall in love with them, and be willing to fight to preserve and protect them.
What have you found really inspires you to continue taking pictures and to continue growing in that process?
I suppose there might be a time in my future when I might not need to take pictures every day, but right now it somehow seems vital. The photos I take and post online are like a diary, and I spend more time than I’m willing to admit looking back over them and remembering the moments that surrounded their creation. Because of the public nature of Instagram, I work hard to make them look as good as I possibly can, so in that way I guess it’s very different than a personal journal. The inspiration that I draw upon in the composition and editing processes comes from the countless photos taken by all the people I follow. I’m exposed to new ideas every days, so I’m always inspired to try new things. Some people criticize Instagram cliches, but for me, trying to imitate certain kinds of shots has been they only photography instruction I’ve ever had.
I own a decent camera, but I never use it. Well, I actually used it the other day to take a picture of my family and I about cried when I saw the picture…it was so sharp and bright! But I am enjoying trying to learn as much as I can about taking good iPhone photos, and working within the limitations of this particular device is somehow both challenging and liberating. I know that that there are just some photos that won’t work, so I don’t try. I’ve also learned a bit about what it can do well (fog!) so when the conditions are right, it’s very satisfying.
Who are the people that have most inspired your photography?
If I analyze the people whose pictures I drool over, a large percentage are Alaskans, because I’m just homesick for that kind of landscape. When I first created my Instagram account, I somehow chanced upon a small group young men in Anchorage who regularly photographed the very same places I would spend my days, but their pictures were drop-dead gorgeous and way better than anything I could do. @jovell, @mikeyhuff, and @williedalton remain some of my all-time favorites, and they inspired me to try harder immediately.
After the Alaskans, the next largest category of inspiration is what I call “ladies who adventure and who also take damn good pictures.” What could be better? Their adventures make me want to put down my phone and put my boots on and just GO! @ralfafara, @goldiehawn_, @tattedbarbiegurl, I would adventure with you any day!
A more recent obsession has been the work of several talented folks specializing in moody, gloomy, luscious close-up work. Everything I see from @to_hi, @pickledgoose, and @lisapbg blows me away. I don’t have the equipment to really achieve anything like what they are doing, but I try in my own small way.
This list wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention some of the folks who have been most encouraging along the way. Can encouragement be inspiration? I think it can. I’m always unsure about my photos and when loyal followers give you specific feedback about what they see, it’s quite helpful and it keeps you playing the game. @garymoger, @lucyrunswild, and @papayafactory are all great photographers, and they also inspire me to be a better follower and spend time leaving more detailed, specific comments.
Be sure to have a look at more of Heather’s work right here!