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NORTH COUNTRY AT WORK: Photographing Adirondack landscapes with Carl Heilman II

September 7, 2018
By ANDY FLYNN - Editor ( , Lake Placid News

BRANT LAKE - Although Carl Heilman II was raised in southern Pennsylvania in the 1950s to early 1970s, he feels as though he grew up in the Adirondacks, vacationing in Warren County as a child. This is where he's been living since high school graduation, and it's where he'll stay, photographing mountain landscapes for people who love the Adirondacks.

Heilman, who turned 64 years old on Sept. 2, is one of the most prolific landscape photographers in the Adirondacks. He photographs and writes for magazines and book publishers, teaches photography workshops, and sells merchandise such as posters, calendars, fine art prints, playing cards and puzzles.

In a nutshell, Heilman loves to go outside and explore the outdoors, whether it's in the Adirondack Park or other natural wonders on the coast of Maine, along the plains of Montana or on the ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains in Virginia. When he goes to these places, he sees wonderful things, and he wants to share those wonderful things with people.

Article Photos

Carl Heilman II at his Brant Lake home
(Provided photo — Andy Flynn)

"And he uses cameras to do it," Heilman said.

Heilman has built his career by sharing photographs of the Adirondack Mountains with residents and visitors. He sold his first photograph to Adirondack Life magazine in 1980. It was a picture of his wife, Meg, with a backpack walking across Lake Colden on a pair of snowshoes on a beautiful, winter day.

"And then for the next several years, I spent more in postage than I ever got in return for anything I was sending out for submission," Heilman said.

"And then we started doing some kind of self publishing in the late 1980s and eventually that worked into full time in the late 1990s."

Heilman began working as a full-time photographer in 1997, more than 40 years after he first visited the Adirondacks as a young child.


Adirondacks as home

Born in 1954, Heilman spent time visiting his grandparents' property at Brant Lake shortly before his parents bought a summer home there in 1958. That's where he lives now with his wife, where they raised their family, and where he moved to in 1973 as an 18-year-old not knowing exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

"When I moved here, it was like I knew where I wanted to live," he said. "I really wanted to be here, and everything else would fall into place."

Heilman spent the first three years living at Brant Lake alone, and he started hiking, exploring the Adirondack backcountry. The wildness, the freedom and the natural beauty spoke to him.

"I really want to record the feeling of what I'm seeing," Heilman said. "That's what really inspired me to pick up a camera was just being so overwhelmed by the magic of what I was seeing and that I wanted to try to capture that feeling."

In 1975, Heilman made a pair of snowshoes for his backcountry adventures. At first, he climbed nearby Pharaoh Mountain in the winter.

"From Pharaoh, I could look off to the High Peaks," he said. "There were the High Peaks glistening on the horizon in January, and I said, 'That's where I'm going next.' So I climbed Algonquin. And it was like, 'Oh, this is just amazing, inspirational, a whole different world,' and I've been doing it ever since."

Heilman didn't have a camera with him on the summit of Algonquin, but the trip inspired him to buy one. He used a box camera when he was a kid, but he never thought of photography as a career.

It wasn't until September 1975 that he bought his first SLR (single-lens reflex) camera, a Minolta 101, using Kodachrome 64 slide film.

"It came with a normal lens, no tripod," he said. "You just knew you had to put the needle into the center of the circle that was on the arm, and you didn't know why, and went out and took pictures."

During his college days from 1976 to 1978, Heilman took some photography courses, although he says he's generally self taught. He moved back to Brant Lake in 1978 and began working in carpentry, manufacturing snowshoes, and taking backcountry photographs and selling them to publications.

"Whatever paid the bills," he said. "It was more important where I lived than what I was doing. As long as I was paying bills, I was fine."


Tools of the trade

Rain was in the forecast on Friday, Aug. 17, and that meant indoor work for Carl Heilman. He'd wait for a drier day for another hike in the woods.

On the dining room floor, he unzipped a medium-sized camera bag and began placing photography equipment on the wooden table. This is what he takes on assignments. He has two Nikon D750 digital SLR camera bodies. On one of them is a 24-120mm, F4 lens, and on the other is a 17-35mm, F2.8 lens.

"What's nice about having two camera bodies is I have a backup," he said. "It gives me a lot of flexibility when I'm out there shooting ... like I was doing on my year-long shoot for Adirondack Life on the Giant Ridge trail. ... I had the one camera set up on the tripod shooting time-lapse on an interval timer while I was off running with the 24 to 120 and doing other things."

Heilman also carries a tripod, a monopod, a GoPro camera, variable and solid ND (neutral density) filters, a loupe for looking at the screen on the back of the camera, a fish-eye lens, a prime wide-angle lens and other lens tools such as extension tubes to do macro work.

"With what I carry in my camera bag, I have the capability to shoot almost any image that comes to mind," he said. "The only thing that I'm short on is telephoto range. And for the way that I shoot, I would maybe miss only one or two percent of the images that I would possibly shoot."

Heilman's average pack weight is between 35 and 40 pounds, which is a little lighter than when he also hauled an 11-pound panorama film camera into the backcountry before his digital days. He had two panorama cameras, one that spun around 360 degrees and one with a fixed 138-degree-wide view.

"With digital, it's easier to shoot overlapped images and then stitch them together in post processing to create the panorama," he said.

When Heilman says "post processing," he's talking about computer software, specifically Adobe PhotoShop. Although being a professional landscape photographer in the Adirondacks may sound glamorous, it's only about 10 percent field work. Most of Heilman's work week is spent sitting at the computer in the office on the second floor of his home.

"When I was shooting film, I spent a lot more time outside," he said. "Your film came back and you put it out on a light table. You sorted through it and put it in sleeves and went back and forth with sleeves and stuff. But with digital, everything is catalogued on the computer, edited on the computer, stored on the computer, captured by a computer. So in the digital age, it's a computer job. It's a desk job."

Then there's email, social media, and writing on the computer. That's where Heilman displays some of his favorite photos. He recently changed his desktop wallpaper to a set of images he took during the 2017 solar eclipse. He was in the Great Smoky Mountains at the time.

"That was the most magical experience I've had in the outdoors and was able to capture the phases of the eclipse," he said. "Nothing else compares to standing under the dark side of the moon and looking up there at the blackest spot that you could ever imagine surrounded by this corona of light with the glow of dusk all around you on the horizon and a couple of stars up there in the sky."


Photography as art

As a painter needs paint, paint brushes and a canvas to create art, a digital photographer needs cameras, lenses and computer software. For both, the artistry comes from within.

"The camera is a means to translate what I want my vision to be for others to see, and the inspiration has always come from inside to want to capture and share what it is that I am seeing there on the outside," Heilman said. "My hope has always been that what I capture and share helps bring through some of that feeling that I was having when I was working to capture that information."

When Heilman was capturing images on film, he used special filters to help bring that translation through to the finished photograph.

"With digital, I look at the camera as a tool to capture the information of what I'm seeing and the software as the filters, the means to be able to translate all the raw data that was captured into what I saw, the emotional impact that I had when I saw it," he said.


Giving back

It wasn't long after Heilman moved permanently to the Adirondack Park that he realized the gift he was given. By protecting millions of acres of Forest Preserve lands, New York state gave him a place to get to know himself, explore the backcountry and be free. He wanted to share those feelings with others, so he picked up a camera. And then he wanted to protect the wild lands of the Adirondacks.

"I felt like the Adirondacks had given me so much," he said.

Heilman joined the Adirondack Mountain Club in the late 1970s and donated one of his images to the club for a "Working for Wilderness" poster. It was just the beginning. He started donating imagery to other environmental groups, such as the Adirondack Council and the Adirondack Chapter of The Nature Conservancy and Adirondack Land Trust, to help raise money for their land-protection causes.

"My photographs are a part of all the work of a lot of people to help protect these places, like the Finch Pruyn lands, the Boreas Ponds," he said. "I appreciated being able to go in and photograph the Boreas Ponds for The Nature Conservancy and happy that the photographs would work into their project to help them get the funding ... they needed to protect the Boreas Ponds and some of these other lands."


Not slowing down

Now that he's 64, Carl Heilman seems as young as ever. He recently hiked about 16 miles, spending 11 hours on the Northville-Placid Trail, to photograph Wanika Falls and Moose Pond. That's a full day for a hiker of any age.

Asked what High Peak he would want to eventually climb as his last, he said Algonquin, the state's second highest mountain at 5,114 feet above sea level, since that was his first.

"But I expect if I can still climb Algonquin, I can still climb some smaller ones, so I doubt if it would be my last," he said.

Yet Heilman is just as happy carrying a camera along a backcountry stream as he is on top of the High Peaks.

In the end, he'll be content somewhere on the ground and will always cherish those memories of being on the mountain summits.

"Fortunately, my knees are still good. My hips are still good," he said. "And it seems like hiking at this point still makes me feel better than worse, so I'm hoping I have a lot of good years on the trails yet in the mountains."



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