Peter Baumgarten reflects on five years as Olympus Visionary

Window on the World by Peter Baumgarten

MANITOWANING – Island photographer Peter Baumgarten has just finished his fifth year of being an Olympus Visionary and the globe-trotting retired teacher says his adventures only continue to grow.

“I have to pinch myself sometimes because it is quite an honour to be affiliated with the company. I didn’t go into it with any expectations; whatever came my way I’d accept,” says Mr. Baumgarten. “If it ended I’d accept it as well, but it keeps going. I’m happy it is; they’re a great company to be affiliated with.”

Camera and electronics manufacturer Olympus launched its Olympus Visionary program in 2003. Mr. Baumgarten is the only Canadian among the current slate of 14 photographers across North America who are part of the program.

Mr. Baumgarten has been shooting with Olympus gear since he was 12 years old back in the film days and has been a lifelong fan of its products.

“When I went to digital I thought, ‘I like their film cameras, so I’ll stick with that company and start my digital photography with them.’ You don’t realize the decisions you make can have very positive outcomes. Had I switched brands, this all probably wouldn’t have happened,” says Mr. Baumgarten.

The company had initially reached out to him after its staffers had been following his work on photo sharing site 500px. They informed him of the Olympus Visionary program and asked if he would be willing to take part. The rest, as they say, is history.

Olympus Visionaries provide a few images to the company that they can use for promotional purposes such as advertisements, brochures and posters. They also travel and represent Olympus at numerous events. Mr. Baumgarten has in recent years travelled to some of North America’s largest photography conferences and offered in-depth workshops and presentations on a range of topics. He has presented at the premiere Canadian photography exhibition, ProFusion, and has travelled to some of North America’s most photogenic locations. 

“Those experiences are pretty incredible when you can share your love of the craft,” says Mr. Baumgarten. “For me, it truly is an honour to present our part of the world to people who perhaps have never heard of Manitoulin Island.”

Good Spirit by Peter Baumgarten

This past July, he travelled with a film crew to Joshua Tree National Park in California to teach and record a course on astrophotography, something he billed as one of the most exciting special projects he’s undertaken in this role. This is a style that Mr. Baumgarten has grown from his long-standing love of landscape photography. The course is being filmed for online instructional video provider CreativeLive and more than 2,100 people had signed up to watch the course before it premiered.

“That’s nervewracking. I’ve presented to crowds of 200 or more but when you’re talking about an audience of thousands, it makes the butterflies flutter a bit more. This is just another one of those experiences I’d never have had, had I not been brought on as a Visionary,” says Mr. Baumgarten.

Olympus is also releasing a booklet on landscape photography to complement its other booklets on subjects such as bird and wildlife photography. Mr. Baumgarten is the landscape booklet’s featured photographer and it shares some of his work, tips and techniques.

Mr. Baumgarten says a real highlight of the program is the access it provides to top-of-the-line Olympus gear which helps him bring his creative vision to life.

“Sometimes I even get to test gear that is just in its development. That’s always a really neat experience to get a camera body, for example, that was literally built by hand and they’ve sent it to you to test out and get your feedback on how it’s working under real-world conditions,” says Mr. Baumgarten. “Being on the ground level of new technology being developed is an amazing honour.”

Mr. Baumgarten says he has learned the value of always being prepared because the best photographic opportunities can arise unexpectedly. He shares a story of driving down Highway 6 in Espanola but having to pull over at Clear Lake beach because a snowstorm had reduced visibility to nearly zero. He asked his wife to get out of the car and sit at a nearby park bench because he had an idea. That has become one of his favourite images.

“Someone from the magazine Shutterbug liked it so much that they published the photo and the story in their magazine,” he says. “I tell that story regularly in my photo lectures because you never know when the opportunity might strike.”

He stresses that good photography is not about having top-quality gear; rather, the important aspect is developing a photographic mindset that can create unique compositions. He shares that, when he got back into photography after a many-year hiatus, he relied on the automatic mode on his camera for a few years before he regained his composition techniques. His first two shots that appeared in Canadian Geographic magazine were shot in auto mode.

Mr. Baumgarten is also sensitive to the importance of patience if one aspires to photographic success.

“Sometimes you have to work a scene in order to get it as perfect as you possibly can,” he says, describing a recent experience shooting a hummingbird that took him well over an hour. “I don’t deal in snapshots.”

He thanks his wife for her patience, too, because when he spies a potential photo while on the road, a stop to take some shots may last for a considerable amount of time.

“She knows I might be shooting for a half hour or more and that she’ll be just sitting in the car. She always brings knitting and a book to read,” says Mr. Baumgarten with a laugh.

Speaking to the importance of composition, Mr. Baumgarten says what is included within a shot is almost as important as what is omitted.

“You don’t want anything distracting. Often, the best compositions are the simplest ones.”

For Islanders wanting to view Mr. Baumgarten’s work, his photography is on display at Elliott’s Restaurant in Little Current and at Perivale Gallery. A full digital offering is at his website, CreativeIslandPhoto.com. As for his ambassador life, Mr. Baumgarten says he is looking forward to beginning his sixth year with Olympus and all the adventures it brings.

“It’s been a wonderful ride so far and I’m glad my affiliation with Olympus is continuing. Even if something does happen, it’s not going to stop me from doing photography because I love doing it,” says Mr. Baumgarten.