Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact

“Nature always wears the colors of the spirit”

Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 1, 1836) 

During our current digital age with the predominance of social media as the primary way images are now shared, the life span of a popular image can often be measured in just days and sometimes even in hours.  This is not surprising when one considers that the average time a typical person looks at an image on social media is measured in just a few seconds or less.  Yet even in this fast moving environment, where fame and glory evaporate like rain on hot desert sands, some images have staying power and create their own legacy-these are “Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact”.

This article will discuss in depth each of the following topics that collectively will help you create inspiring images with lasting impact.

  1. Emotion
  2. Self Expression
  3. Story Telling
  4. Light
  5. Color
  6. Contrast
  7. Composition
  8. Gestalt

Before discussing each of these, however, I would like to introduce my concept of a shared vision.   Nature images that have staying power put forward a vision that is shared by both the originator of the image, the Photographer, and the viewer.  The attributes of the image invite the viewer to participate in the photographer’s vision.  The American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson provided us some insight into how this is possible.  The process starts by finding who we are as a person, our authentic self.  Emerson and two noteworthy legends he influenced, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir pointed out the way.  We must recover our authentic self through separating ourselves from societal influences and immersing ourselves in nature.  Emerson thought nature always points to soul and spirit, the invisible world, that is the source of all creation.  This may sound somewhat far-fetched to some, but in my experience working and collaborating with some of the best nature and landscape photographers, most have confided in me that that there is more to the world than what is seen, and it is this something extra, an often idealized or romanticized vision of nature, that they want to include in their photographic creations.  Because photography, which is anchored in the moment and physical world also points to the universal world of spirit, others can join in and share in the photographer’s vision.  Emerson saw a circular and fluid path between Nature, the Self, and Spirit.  The conventions and distractions of society can keep us from noticing this flow, but experiencing this continuum is available to all who approach nature on her own terms.

 

Shared Vision

(Unified Field of Consciousness–One = Many)

Shared Vision

I will now discuss each of the eight topics.

(1) Emotion

 

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Autumn Moods

When someone views one of your images they always have an emotional response, but this response is not always strong and and a viewer’s interest can easily wane.  Images with a lasting impact, however, will evoke a strong emotional response in the viewer.  There are many reasons why this may be the case.  Perhaps they visited this location or a similar location and your image brings back positive memories.  Or like in the image above, the mood and atmosphere of the image transports the viewer into a realm of mystery that spurs their active imagination.  The viewer pictures him or herself walking into the scene experiencing the sense of awe and mystery of the place as if they were actually there.  For more on the active imagination see Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination.

“The world is but a canvas for our imagination.” Henry David Thoreau

Next time you are out photographing ask yourself what emotions you feel as you are taking in the beauty, wonders, and mystery of nature.  Do you feel uplifted with a sense of joy, or does these scene bring up darker feels of  fear or sadness?  Does the scene exude a sense of peace and tranquility, or does it exude more of sense of strong motion and power?  Whatever emotion you feel, try to convey this in the image, both at the moment of capture and in post processing.

 

(2) Self Expression

“Going into the woods is going home”–John Muir

“Be yourself, no base imitator of another, but you best self”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is a sense when reading the profound works of Emerson, Thoreau and John Muir that the path to finding our authentic self and expressing who we are deep down inside goes through nature and the wilderness.  We recover our true self in quiet moments immersed in the solitude of nature.  Once there, nature provides a mirror to our soul and spirit.  But the process of self recovery has a few conditions.  We cannot recover our authentic self if we approach nature as something to be consumed–locations and photo-ops to be checked off our bucket list.  Finding ones self in nature and expressing our true self in our images require that we experience nature on its own terms without any preconditions or desire to control her wildness.   Nature also demands that we eventually come to her on our own without any intermediary–workshop leaders, photography gurus, and the like.  We come alone because we can only understand her secrets through the powers of our direct intuition.  For more on finding your authentic self see my blog post Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self . 

Baker in the Rain091

Rainy Day Autumn Dream

I spent a weekend at Mt. Baker last September but did not see the mountain once.  The thick cerebral layer of clouds and constant heavy rain moved me into a self reflective dimension with this image of the Bagley Lake Bridge best expressing my emotional state.

 

(3) Storytelling

“Truth is so rare, it is delightful to tell it.”
Emily Dickinson

Images that come with a story almost always have a more lasting impact than images that do not.   Sometimes the story arises naturally from the composition of the image, such as two lovers waking along the beach into the sunset.  Other times the story is provided in a short written narrative.  Stories are successful because they provide context to the image and invite viewers to go deeper into the image and explore how it relates to the narrative.  Sometimes a good title for an image is all that is needed to give additional context to the image that is largely already self-sufficient in telling a story.  Ideally the written story and story told through the path of  light and image composition compliment or even  mirror each other.  Viewers love a good story even if it is brief.  Some of my stories for landscape images have to do with the challenges that often come with getting the shot.  But I also have stories that have to do with the history of a landscape.   Often stories that have the most impact reveal how a landscape awakens an experience at a personal level that is often shared by others as well, such a journey to one’s ideal home as in the image below.  These stories are more archetypal in nature and contain visual metaphors that point to common experiences.  With all types of stories, the story not only helps lead the viewer into the image, but also helps reveal what the photographer was thinking and feeling at the time of capture.

Indian Henry0545-HDR

Walking into  a Dream

 

(4)  Light

Three Forks Dog Park Autumn0097-HDR

Remains of Autumn

On this evening beautiful intense front light at low angle came through a crack in the clouds strongly illuminating the trees, clouds and reflections.  The clouds also reflected light back onto the scene.

We live in a time when many of the images that rise to sudden popularity were taken in conditions of underwhelming light.  I personally have watched and listened to a few well known video tutorials where the author even indicated that good natural light is not necessary because it can be created in Photoshop.  Often these tutorials start with images where the directional and nuanced lighting is for the most part absent except for perhaps some lingering light in the sky such as images taken just before dusk.  The reason to start there is because it is easier to manufacture the needed light for these images through painting through a masking in Photoshop.  I have noticed recently, however, a trend recently where the best landscape photographers are now featuring images with beautiful and often subtle natural light.  One of the reasons for this is that we have become numb to the countless spectacular images manufactured in Photoshop with once in a life time epic lighting.  The images now lack context and no longer stand out as they all blend into a vast uniform commonality on platforms such as 500px and Instagram.  It is important to note that Transcendental Nature Photography has no prohibition on introducing sources of light that were not there to begin with, ultimately there are no rules.   The Transcendentalist just wants to preserve the relationship with nature as it is experienced and intuitively grasped, because it is this connection that points to soul and spirit and ultimately a shared vision.

Maple Pass481-HDR

Autumn Magic:  About 15 minutes before sunset front to side lighting came through an opening in the clouds providing spotlighting to the ridge tops and a warm glow to the grayish clouds that reflected light back down onto the mountain ash bushes and Lake Ann.

Images that have staying power and lasting impact will be anchored in the natural light that was present at the moment of capture.  The reason for this hearkens back to our earlier discussion of “Shared Vision”.  We always start with nature as it presents itself in the here and now.  This is what provides us a mirror to our authentic self and also transports us and our viewers into a shared world of soul and spirit.  This does not mean we cannot enhance the lighting that was in the original scene.  If fact, this is necessary to poetically evoke the feeling of nature as the manifestation of the world of soul and spirit.  But the idealization and or romanticizing of the experience of being in nature always maintains a “down to earth” anchor in this physical world even as it points to an invisible world beyond.

The quality of the light is determined by its color, angle, direction and intensity.  Before sunrise the lighting is cool but transitions to warm as the sun rises.  As the sun sets the lighting gets warmer but eventually transitions to cooler tones.  This is why the feel of sunrise can be quite different than sunset.  How does the movement and transition of light correspond with your own internal landscape and emotional state of being?  Through timing, image framing, and post processing can the external and internal landscapes be brought into a closer union.  The possibilities for the effect of light on an image are endless.  Learn how to read light and you are well on your way to mastering landscape photography.

 

(5) Color

Silver Spirit Trout0552 copy

Autumn at Spirit Falls

In this image the blue green Red Orange Colors are complementary and green to yellow orange colors are harmonious.

Blotches of bright and saturated color are one of the first things we see in an image which helps explain why certain images capture immediate attention and instant likes in popular social media platforms.  It does not take long for many photographers to catch on to to this as they bring overly saturated color into their images through processing.  After all the average attention span when scrolling through images on social media is only a second or two and color is what wins out given this short period of time.   The problem with these images, however, is that upon closer inspection they do not hold our attention long.  Images, however, with rich, nuanced and carefully selected colors are something our eyes can rest on and explore for longer periods of time and perhaps we can even bring into our homes as wall art.

Although perceptions of color can be subjective and also tied to cultural beliefs,  there are some archetypal and universal responses to color, both positive and negative, that seem to transcend personal and cultural beliefs.  Colors in the red area of the color spectrum are known as warm colors and include red, orange, and yellow. These warm colors evoke emotions ranging from feelings of warmth and comfort to feelings of anger and hostility.  Colors on the blue side of the spectrum are known as cool colors and include blue, purple, and green. These colors are often described as calm, but can also call to mind feelings of sadness or indifference.  Complementary Colors are opposite each other on the color wheel and produce lively attention-getting contrast.  Adjacent colors on the color wheel, such as red, orange-red, red-orange, and orange are harmonious.  There is red in all four colors.  The likeness results in pleasing harmony.  Colors can also have many subtle attributes that invite the viewer to explore the image further including tint (any color + white), tone (any color = grey) and shade (any color = black).  Excessively  high saturation levels can result in the lack of color gradations with fewer  variations of  color shades, tints and tones.

Next time you are out in the field and framing a composition ask yourself what effect are the colors in the scene having upon you?  Are one or more of these colors not consistent with your current emotional state?  Will more selective framing of the scene reduce the number of potentially clashing colors?  Does the intended framing  include complementary colors or harmonious colors, or perhaps some of both?

To a certain extent the color balance, hues, saturation, tints, tones, and shades can be modified in Photoshop.    It is usually best, however, for colors to also have a good grounding in the actual scene and to keep processing modifications of colors more on subtle side of the spectrum.  In processing one can decide which color/s to bring the most attention to and use lower saturation levels on the other colors.  But some of the grace and naturalness of the scene along with its connection to the soul and spirit will be lost with drastic alterations of hues or saturation levels.

(6) Contrast

Maple Pass1469R2

North Cascades Aspens

I used my 300mm lens to achieve a compressed perspective of these Aspens that were at some distance away from the dark cliff in the background that was in shadow.  I accentuated the contrast between the Aspens and the dark cliff to achieve a better level of contrast helping make the image pop.

There are two types of Contrast: Tonal Contrast and Color Contrast.  Tonal contrast refers to the difference in bright and dark areas in a photo. Color Contrast  refers to the way colors interact with each other.  In this topic I am primarily concerned with Tonal Contrast.  Contrast can be both at a macro level with the differentiation of the subject from the background and at the micro level helping to reveal important details in the image.  Both macro and micro tonal contrast can help create a sense of depth and a multidimensional aspect to the image.

Maple Pass640-HDR Color Boost Liberty Bell Reflecting Pond

Micro tonal contrast in this image helps make it work.  Micro contrast is especially evident in the trees and clouds, and to a somewhat lesser extent on the mountain and the red huckleberry bush.

 

Although contrast in an image can help an image pop and direct the viewers attention to the subject/s and follow a path of light, it can easily be overdone.  My experience with my own images and looking at those of others that have staying  power and are also brought into people’s homes as wall art confirms that in most cases more subtle applications of contrast create the best images.  We do not need a sledge hammer to direct our attention to what to look at in the image and this distracts from the organic feel of the image and its connection to the time and place that is the source of our inspiration.  But sensible and somewhat restrained enhancements of contrast showing the path of light, separation of of subject/s from background, illumination of gradations of tonal values, and application of a subtle vignette work wonders and can set the image apart.

Bridge and Leavesi0214-HDR

Cavanaugh Pond Tree Reflections

Some images cry out for lower contrast, as is the case here with the trees and reflections on a foggy day at Cavanaugh Pond close to my home in Renton Washington.

 

(7) Composition

Image composition is simply the arrangement different subjects and visual elements in the frame.  A successful composition will provide a visual path through the image that directs the viewers attention on the subject/s and elements the photographer considers most important.  In compositions with lasting impact the viewer will not only be guided through the scene, but his/her eyes will also thoroughly explore the image, moving around all parts of the frame to fully appreciate both the whole image and all of its parts.  Ask yourself:  Is my image strong enough for eyes to wander through all elements of the scene?  This is what will happen once an image is hung on a living space wall where it will be looked at again and again.  Landscape photography differs from studio  photography in that we have limited or no flexibility to alter the physical elements within our chosen framing for the scene.  But the Landscape is far more expansive than the studio and there are a multitude of if scenes within scenes and even scenes at the micro level.  From all of this we can make an almost infinite number of composition choices.  Sometimes just moving the tripod a couple of inches can create an altogether different composition.

Nature provides exceptions to every rule.  Margaret Fuller

Guy Tal offers three concepts for thinking about composition in the field: Framing, Perspective and Balance.  I have found these three concepts match very well my more intuitive method of approaching composition and will use them to discuss my approach to composition.  It is important to recognize there are no absolute rules in composition.  While rules such as the “Rule of Thirds” or the need to identify a “Primary Subject” help us to get thinking about composition, they are not absolute mandates.  Creation of a good composition is ultimately a more of an intuitive process that flows organically from our experience of the scene.  We know good composition when we see it even if it cannot be attributed to specific rules of composition.  In this regard we do not look for specific features such as leading lines or foreground elements first and then compose the shot around this.  The composition should always start from our experience of the scene, our emotional response, our intuition about its meaning, and ultimately our intentions for the image–these are the compositions that will have lasting impact.

 

Rock Tapestry

Rock Tapestry

In this composition using a 200mm lens at close range, I chose to emphasis a very small area of the slot canyon wall.   This allowed me to create an abstract image featuring diagonal lines, somewhat analogous geometric shapes, and patterns of colors.

Framing.  The single most important decision one makes in composition is framing–how much or little of the scene to include in the image frame.  When approaching the scene it is best to at first not even take out the camera.  How does the scene make you feel?  What are the elements in the scene that you are attracted to?  What are the elements of the scene you do not like and can these be eliminated or deemphasized?  Does the scene stir up memories–joy or sadness?  Does the scene leave you feeling calm and peaceful, or is there more of a sense of energy and motion associated with changing conditions? Once you have an idea of your intentions for the scene use your hands or better yet your imagination to build a frame- then think about which focal length would best match your rough framing and intuitive grasp of the scene.

Perspective. Once you have identified the initial framing of the scene, it is now time to determine where best to position yourself relative to the scene.  Much of this exploratory work can also be done without a camera.  Get down low, and then perhaps even lower as in right on the ground.  How does the scene look from different vantage points.  If shooting with a wide or normal angle lens, get closer then move away from foreground objects.  Often  movements up and down, forward and backwards, and to the left or right can result in major differences in the composition including its sense of depth.  A very low perspective will provide maximum emphasis to foreground elements but may lack the height necessary to fully appreciate leading lines to a primary subject or place too little emphasis on the mid-ground.   Are both your foreground and mid-ground elements equally important or is it more important to place maximum emphasis on the foreground that might also be your primary subject?  The key is to keep moving around the scene exploring different alternatives before setting up a tripod with camera for fine tuning of the composition.  For more on framing and perspective see my blog post Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty

 

Silver Spirit Trout0309 copy

South Falls Magic Mushroom Discovery

In this image there are two main subjects, the mushroom and the waterfall.  I chose a very low and close perspective to give primary attention to the mushrooms underneath and seemingly looking out to South Falls.  The mid-range gets only low to moderate emphasis in this image.

Balance.  Image balance is about the placement of the subject/s and elements in the fame to achieve to a natural flow and rhythm.  In a well balanced image distractions will be eliminated or minimized, there will be no competing elements, and there will not be excessive negative space.  If there is a primary subject, attention will be brought to it through the use of light, contrast,  and somewhat more saturated color.   There will be a visual flow to the primary subject through the use of leading lines, contrast and or a path of light.  In wide angle images, there will be a natural and flowing transition from the foreground to the mid-ground and background portions of the image.  Often balance is achieved through simplification, but more complex and even somewhat chaotic scenes can still be balanced through various methods including darkening and desaturating portions of the scene that need less emphasis and more importantly through the use of  gestalt principles (more on this in the next topic).

Maple Pass1018-HDR

Autumn Cascading Meadows

Color transitions and where the rock meet the autumn meadow provide a sense of cascading diagonal lines that lead the eyes through the foreground and mid-ground portions of the scene to the overlapping ridges beyond.  The overall result is a great sense of depth in the image and an overall well balanced composition.

 

(8) Gestalt

Autumn Variety0019-HDR

Boardwalk through a Mossy Bog

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” Henry David Thoreau

Have you ever wondered  why one image will inspire us to see beyond the arrangement of subjects and objects within a frame and another will not?  Both images are arranged through composition techniques, but only one of the two will move us beyond the literal interpretation of the scene so that we can share in the photographer’s vision  and what inspired him/her in the first place.  Gestalt theory provides us some clues.

Gestalt refers to a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.  Gestalt helps explain how our vision works in grouping elements into more unified groups and associations.  Our eyes and the corresponding processing of vision in our brain work much different than the lens of our camera.  We can look into the chaos of a forest and still see a fundamental unity, the camera initially cannot.  Often normal vision is identified as what one would see through a standard 50mm lens.  But in  reality our vision is far different from this.  Our eyes move around and within blinks of the eye we go from seeing the world wide to narrow to panning the scene almost simultaneously.   This is our perception creating unified images in our mind that seem to evaporate when  looking through the viewfinder of our camera at a static image.

There are certain principles of the Gestalt theory of perception that can help us in creating transcendent and unified images.

Similarity.  Objects and elements that are similar are perceived as a group.  Types of similarities include shapes, diagonal lines, curves, textures,  colors, the amount or color of light, and shadows and highlights.  It is important to note that these attributes do not need to be identical and in fact it is often better that they are not because this is more consistent with the flow of natures often imperfect order.   For example our mind will still group together objects with a roughly circular shape even if they are different sizes and dimensions and occur in different parts of the scene.

Proximity.  The eye perceives that objects close to one another as belonging to a group and these objects do not necessarily need to be similar.

Continuation.  The principle of continuation refers to the mind’s tendency to see complete forms even if a picture is incomplete, partially hidden by other objects, or if part of the information needed to make a complete picture in our minds is missing.  The mind assumes that lines extend beyond the edges of the frame.  An example of this is a trail or boardwalk disappearing in the distance (as in the image above).  In the landscape photo this principle helps create a sense of depth (along with the use of a wide-angle lens) as the mind believes that the boardwalk continues beyond its vanishing point.

Closure.  The mind completes shapes that only exist partially in the image, such as a partial circle or triangle. With time one can recognize shapes in a scene that may not be apparent at first and integrate these shapes with other similar shapes in the scene to create a visual thread that helps tie together and unify the image—think of this as visual poetry.  Seldom is image making a precise lesson in geometry but rather has more to do with identifying somewhat similar shapes, patterns and colors that can create a balanced whole.

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Autumn Passage

Some Gestalt unifying gestalt principles can be seen in this image.  There is a similarity of shapes between the granite rock in the foreground, the upper half of Lake Valhalla, and the top of Lichtenberg peak in the upper left.  The proximity of the granite rock with the harmoniously colored sections of golden yellow green and orange red foliage helps form a unified foreground group.  The triangular granite rock partially hidden by foliage (closure) points (continuation) down the slope to the lake and the peak aided by slightly diagonal lines in the mid ground.  The lake itself and the peak point to the sky and warm clouds of sunset (continuation).

Emergence. Emergence is somewhat different from the other Gestalt principles in that it is something that one sees after initially grasping the unified whole image.  Emergence is about going deeper into the image to appreciate the details, subtle gradations of color and light (recall our discussion about micro contrast).  This flies in the face of those who argue that details do not matter and suggests that once the whole is recognized we need to give the viewer a place to go for awhile to discover more about the riches of the image.  Emergence is a necessary gestalt principle for images with lasting impact.  Emergence can be seen in the above image, especially in the foreground, with the details in the granite rock and subtle gradations of color and tones in the foliage.  It can also be seen in the forests and rocks of Lichenberg Peak.

 

Conclusion

Images that have lasting impact go beyond the faithful recording of Nature’s handy work.  Some refer to this difference as one between documentary and expressive photography.  I prefer to think about it as moving toward transcendental photography.  Transcendental photography moves beyond the individual subjects and objects in the image, beyond the faithful recording of color and light values,  and even beyond the image where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The transcendent image instills an emotional reaction and evokes an appreciation for still another dimension, the soul and spirit of a place and time and offers the viewer a shared vision.  For more on inspiration and vision see Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photography: Finding Your Photographic Vision  The image has strong composition attributes that invite the viewer to come into the image, listen to its story, understand its visual metaphors and explore both the whole image and its subtle and nuanced details. The viewer shares in the creator’s inspiration and participates in the creator’s vision .

Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.  Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 4 1836)

A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment in time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.  Each particle is a microcosm and faithfully renders the likeness of the world.  Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature–Chapter 5 1836) 

 

Spirit Angels in the Forest

Spirit Angels in the Forest


Thanks for reading this blog post.  I greatly appreciate this and would love to hear from you.  Please leave a comment with your thoughts on this posts.  If you would like to receive additional posts like this please also follow this blog either through word press or a request for email notifications.  If you feel so inclined please help me reach people who may be interested in this post through sharing.  Thanks!

 

 

 

 

 

13 thoughts on “Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Inspiring Images with Lasting Impact

  1. Really a great deal here to really think about. Appreciate the integration of the concepts being applied to photography some of which have been long presented related to the understanding of beauty. Love the integrated approach. Recently purchased a photographic expression as gift for my husband primarily because of its resonance. As in music, the cord is struck and there is a reply. Thank you much to contemplate.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. All of my images involve extensive post processing to create an image that is consistent with my experience of the scene and the mood I am trying to create. Out of the camera raw images are neither consistent with the scene or expressive of the mood I am trying to convey and need to be processed. Some choose to do this in camera but I prefer the control of the digital dark room. I spend between a half hour and two hours on each image. Much of this time is in a creative mode involving experimentation with different approaches which I also do at the moment of capture. Almost all images need some degree of dodging and burning, and often layer masking is needed for focus blending or exposure blending.

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  3. Thank you very much for this article! It was very well thought out and helps to me to understand the connection between elements in images and the effect on viewers. It was very timely as I look through my own work trying to decide what to print. Your work has been and continues to inspire me. Cheers!

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