Fstoppers Interviews National Geographic Cinematographer and Photographer Renan Ozturk

Fstoppers Interviews National Geographic Cinematographer and Photographer Renan Ozturk

North Face athlete. National Geographic Adventurer of the Year. Painter. Cinematographer. Filmmaker. Whether climbing first ascents or hanging off cliffs to film hallucinogenic honey hunters, Renan Ozturk's bio reads like that of five people. Fstoppers was lucky enough to interview this talented creative. Find out all about him and his process here.

Ozturk's last undergraduate class was an art class, which inspired him to pursue climbing and landscape artwork after he graduated. As his climbing work led him to working with North Face and cameras became smaller, he wanted to reach more people and felt that the audio and visual combination of film could create an emotional response in more audiences.

Photography would come in the last few years as another addition, with clients like National Geographic jumping on board. He finds his time as an athlete and a painter influences his work; he first started video work with time-lapses, feeling it was a natural progression from painting, while his subject matter tends toward the remote and physically inaccessible, such as dangling off a cliff in a bee suit in Nepal, as you can see below (use the arrows to change the view):

Nepal is Ozturk's favorite spot, and he returns to it for different projects at least once a year, searching for untouched climbing spots or documenting cultural stories. He notes he appreciates the vast range of both visual and cultural aspects within the country, where one can travel from near sea level to the highest point on the planet. In terms of subject matter, his work has ranged from a documentary on the Sherpa culture to the honey hunters story you see above. He also enjoys pushing the limits of technology while on these treks; when the 5D Mark II came out and revolutionized DSLR video, he took it with him along with a satellite modem and solar panel, editing video and uploading it on the fly for "As It Happens," which documented their first ascent of Tawoche Himal, a 6,000-meter mountain in Nepal. Some painting techniques carry over as well. His painting style is very gestural, resulting in fluid, but accurate depictions of landscapes that resonate from the subconscious, and that preference for going by feel carries over into his editing style, avoiding the sometimes rigid structure of commercial shooting.

Of course, the remote locations are not easy on the body:

If you are really hurting, you turn the camera on and you're documenting it. In a way, you're masking the pain of the moment by being immersed and hiding behind the lens in a certain way.

Ozturk is a Sony Artisan, noting he prefers them because they're the smallest full-frame cameras on the market, and with the extreme physical demands of his climbing work, the weight is crucial. He also shoots with RED equipment when the weight limits allow, noting he loves the ability to shoot in 8K with the RED's excellent dynamic range and enjoying the challenge of getting the cameras into difficult spots, such as a sunrise on Mount Everest. 

Despite his video and photowork, Ozturk's climbing goals remain unabated, as he eyes first ascents across the world, but he also feels he can have a greater impact "telling the stories of people who want their stories told, but don't necessarily have a voice." This leads to the combination that often creates work that is raw and remote, ranging from adventure stories, such as climbing the Ruth Gorge to slack-lining in the desert to investigating the history of Native American treatment in the United States. 

There's a balance of those things. Sometimes, they oppose each other, because of the training you have to do to maintain fitness to go on some of these climbs.

Ozturk notes that the toughest part of his work is often staying in the moment and "respecting whomever you're with, whether that's an athlete or a remote culture." For example, when he was filming his Sherpa documentary, an avalanche tragically killed 16 Sherpas, and achieving the delicate balance of telling the story while maintaining respect was "excrutiating." Other difficulties often include the extreme situations he faces: while climbing in southeast Asia with GPS equipment to ascertain the highest peak in the region, his group ran out of food, with everyone involved losing significant weight, though ultimately surviving. 

On the other hand, his best memories also stem from the extreme:

All those things are what people tend to call 'Type II' fun. They're fun when you think you're in danger or you might even die or it's an emotional moment that you might not get through. But then, you end up bringing back those really rare moments of the human condition where people are all strung out and you're continuing to roll the camera or you're in these rare situations. They do bring light to these stories in a way that's really unique to this world. Some of the worst moments turn into the best moments.

Ozturk's dream is to be able to reduce the resources it takes to create some of his work. He notes the unfortunate irony of having to take a plane around the world to film environmentally focused work, noting he often thinks about how he can have an impact without traveling as much. Nonetheless, he still wants to go deeper into more remote locations, such as Greenland and Antarctica, but he keeps on a constant eye on the amount of resources it takes to get to them. 

For up and coming photographers and videographers, Ozturk stresses the importance of developing a style of editing and sticking to it consistently, particularly if you're still exploring subject matter, as this gives your portfolio an identifiable stylistic consistency associated with your name. He also recommends focusing on story over gear, noting that technology has advanced to such a state of capabilities and omnipresence that story is more important than ever. Furthermore, he speaks of a certain level of introspection, highlighting the importance of really understanding yourself as that relates to passions and stories that are important to you — stories that can come from places as close as your own family:

 Everyone has something like that, and that's what will make their photography or videography really shine and help them find their own niche.

Ozturk has also embraced the new horizons offered by drones, having experimented with anything from consumer-level DJI Phantoms to professional cinema-grade devices carrying RED cameras. He notes that they can be easily overused, but are also highly useful for certain storylines (both stills and video), the key being a shrewd sense of when their use is appropriate. Interestingly, one advantage is the lessened impact they have on the environment by enabling the same shots a helicopter would with far less pollution than an aircraft would cause. On the other hand, he advocates against their usage for more intimate shots. 

Most recently, he led a group of photographers and adventurers on an expedition to Havana, Cuba. You can read his take on the trip here and see some of the remarkable shots from those who attended on the Lightroom Instagram. You can also follow Ozturk on Instagram and check out his website for more of his amazing work.

All media used with permission of Renan Ozturk.

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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I love everything he does, especially MERU