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.  American philosopher and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson provides us with 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)

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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 feelings 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 . 

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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.

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Walking into  a Dream

 

(4)  Light

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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.

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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 as a mirror to our authentic self and also what 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.

Morning Dew

Morning Dew :  At sunrise I shot this image looking directly at the sun that provided back lighting to the tulips and morning dew.

The quality of the light is determined by its angle, direction, color and intensity.  Shooting directly into the sun at a low angle may provide dramatic back lighting of elements in the scene.  Side lighting at a low angle is best for revealing textures and contrast.  Front lighting at low angles can transform a scene when channeled through a small opening in dark clouds.  Diffused light from an overcast sky can help rein in excessive contrast and emphasize subtle colors and textures.  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 along with the interplay of light and shadow 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?  We associate light with illumination: the ability to see, consciousness, awareness, and transcendence.  By way of contrast darkness and shadows can represent a limited ability to see, the subconscious, the unknown, and feeling stuck in one’s personal world.  Light and its effect on the physical landscape can be thought of as a metaphor that illuminates inner or even transcendent vision.  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

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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 (along with high contrast) is often 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 our heads to direct our attention to what to look at in the image.  Excessive contrast (often made possible through the aggressive application of luminosity masks and corresponding curve adjustments) can distract 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.

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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

 

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South Falls Magic Mushroom Discovery

In this image there are two main subjects, the mushrooms 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).

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Autumn Cascading Meadows

Color transitions and where the rocks 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

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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 nature’s 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


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Sources of Inspiration for Nature and Landscape Photography: Finding Your Photographic Vision

 

Inspiration and Vision: Early Beginnings

What originally brought you to Landscape Photography?  The answer I hear from most people when faced with this question is that “I had a desire to share with others my experience of visiting beautiful places while traveling, hiking and backpacking.  Typically these experiences are charged with deep emotions that have a profound and lasting effect on the individual.  But the resulting images often fall way short of expressing the emotions and feelings surrounding the sense of place.  Instead the images are largely documentary and also are not good even from a technical perspective.  But make no mistake, the photographer felt a great sense of inspiration at the moment of capture.

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“I may pass this way again”

Often we will return to a place as our photographic skills evolve to rekindle and capture the emotions we originally felt as we were just starting out in photography.   This is such a place and last week I made this return journey.

 

Inspiration and Vision: Progression

The desire to better capture the emotions and feelings surrounding a sense of place helps motivate the photographer to learn.  The photographer begins the process of learning the technical aspects of photography: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, focus, angle of view, image development, etc.  This is learning photography as a craft.  The photographer also begins learning the basics of composition: lines, shapes, patterns, subject placement, light, creative processing, etc.   This begins the process of learning the art of photography. But as the photographer embarks upon this path of learning, he or she may feel that some of the energy and enthusiasm that originally brought them to landscape photography is missing.  It is easy to get  caught up in the technical and learned compositional approaches to photographay.  The process becomes almost mechanical and may not be in touch with a vital link to the world of feeling and emotion and who one is as a person.  It is at this point that the landscape photographer begins looking for new sources of inspiration.

Morning Dew

Morning Dew

I felt a tremendous sense of emotion that touched the depths of my soul as this scene slowly evolved as the sun rose over the tulips fields shrouded in mist and morning dew.  All of the techniques involved in capturing this image, including the near far compositional approach emphasizing the dew, reflections and sun’s rays— were directed at expressing my emotions and feelings of this place at this most memorable time.  I did not employ technique and compositional artistry for its own sake.

 

Sources of Inspiration

I will now discuss each of the following sources of inspiration.  Some of these may seem surprising to photographers and contrary to the advice they may have received from other influencers, but bear with me and I will establish the value of each of these sources of inspiration in helping guide one’s photographic journey.

  1. Visiting Iconic Places
  2. Published Images
  3. Other Photographers
  4. Going off the Beaten Path
  5. Alternative Perspectives
  6. Going to New Places
  7. Beauty in Familiar and Ordinary Places
  8. Taking a break from Photography
  9. Keeping a Journal
  10. Internal Sources of Inspiration

 

(1) Visiting Iconic Places

Wild Geranium Tetons Sunrise

Wild Geranium Tetons Sunrise

This image was taken at the iconic site of Oxbow Bend in Grand Tetons National Park.

It can be challenging to create a unique composition in an iconic place, but if one follows their instincts and intuition for what is interesting in the scene and perhaps also receives a blessing from mother nature of unique weather and flora, it is not only possible but also probable.   Iconic places are iconic for a reason.  They have the power to instill strong emotional reactions and even have symbolic value in our collective psyche that can be tapped into and shared instilling similar emotions in others.  Every year individuals and families make pilgrimages to such iconic sites as Oxbow Bend, Yellowstone Falls, Crater Lake and others for precisely this reason.  Never underestimate to power of visiting an iconic site.

Eye of the Crater

Eye of the Crater: Crater Lake National Park

 

(2) Published Images

In our modern internet world images are published in a number of ways.  Some are published in traditional sources such as printed magazines such as Outdoor Photographer or presented in physical galleries, but increasingly images are published in online magazines such as Landscape Photography Magazine.  Perhaps the most accessible source of images is Social Media which includes Facebook, Flickr, Instagram and 500px.  There are also websites where we can find the work of individual photographers and their blogs.  All of these sources of published images can serve as great places for photographers to go for inspiration.  It is important, however, when viewing these images to prioritize ones time, looking at the images that are not only good but also resonate with ones  own artistic sensibilities.  It is also important to engage in what Miles Morgan calls “Active Viewing”.   To quote Miles:

“By “actively view” I mean that you aren’t just looking at pretty pictures. You’re trying to figure out WHY you like the image. What makes the image work vs. the other images you find less appealing? How can you incorporate those techniques yourself? What images DON’T interest you? Why not? How can you avoid the pitfalls that made the photograph less intriguing?”

In viewing published images we are not trying to replicate what others have done.  Although it is possible that a published image may provide inspiration for reinterpretation  of what others have done, the process of active viewing is better viewed as a process that will help us grow and better equip us to fulfill our own vision of an altogether different place and time.

 

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Epiphany

This image of the Enchantments was recently published as the final frame in the July issue of Landscape Photography Magazine.  For more on my Enchantments adventures see Visiting and Photographing the Enchantments.

 

(3) Other Photographers

None of us are an island onto our self and we are all indebted to not only those who came before us but also to landscape photographers currently operating in the field.  One can find an immense source of inspiration through following the life and work of photographers who we admire.  I recommend picking only about three or four to follow in depth.  Questions to consider include:

  • What makes the photographer tick?
    • What brought you to photography?
    • Who inspires you?
    • What is the photographer’s signature style, and has it changed over the years?
    • What are the stories behind the photographs

To truly appreciate the work of the photographer we need to get to know who he or she is as a person, which will of course take time and effort.  If the photographer is featured in a podcast, listen to it.  Read their blogs and social media posts.  Watch their tutorials.  Reach out to the photographer, let them know you are inspired by their work, and cultivate some one on one communication, perhaps even friendship.  If they offer workshops, attend their workshop.

As I have progressed as a photographer over the years their are several photographers whose work I admire that I have reached out to.  These include Art Wolfe  (I attended a workshop early on and various presentations and have read many of his books), Candace Dyar (attended a workshop and communicate with her frequently),  Nick Page (regularly listen to his podcast and watch his tutorials) and Michael Gordon (recently participated in a one on one  workshop and tour in the Death Valley).

Along somewhat similar lines, many landscape photographers find inspiration and even a sense of belonging in joining other photographers for social photography in the field.  This can be done formally through clubs or more informally through meet ups and circles of friends deciding to get together.  Companionship and collaboration with like-minded people can also facilitate additional learning as one sees how others approach the art and craft of photography.  My only caution here is that although we are social by nature and need this kind of interaction, it is also true that to fully blossom as an artist one needs to ultimately cultivate more inner sources of inspiration.  I will discuss this more later in the article in the tenth source of inspiration, inner sources.

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Here Comes the Sun by Candace Dyar

I have been following the work of Candace for about five years now and just love her painterly approach and color harmony in her images.

 

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Unrest: Nick Page

It has been amazing to watch Nick progress as a photographer over the past few years We are witnessing the appearance of a new Northwest Icon (and entertainer to boot!)

 

(4) Going off the Beaten Path

Going off the beaten path or taking the road less traveled can provide fresh perspectives and inspiration through the process of discovery.  This also increases the likelihood that your vision will be unique allowing you to take better ownership of your vision.  Because these spots are also far less photographed, the influence of other photographers on your vision will be less.  Some of the absolute best times in my life as a photographer occurred when I felt  I was experiencing nature in a way that few if any have witnessed before.  Of course part of this is how we bring our own thoughts, emotions and feelings to the landscape, but the other part of this is the landscape itself speaking to us, sharing with us the unique spirit of the place and time that few get to see.  Going off the beaten path can also take the form of a multi-day backpacking trip into the wilderness, the ultimate source of inspiration.  For more on this see my blog post Multi-Day Backpacking and Photography

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Boulder Falls

Off trail somewhere in the Snoqualmie National Forest

 

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Rivers Bend: Eagle Cap Wilderness Area

 

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Image Lake at Sunrise

I reached this beautiful lake in the Glacier Peak wilderness  area, and 18 miles in, as part of a multi-day backpacking trip.  For more on this adventure see Visiting and Photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area: Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop.

 

(5) Alternative Perspectives

Most landscape photographers at the current time demonstrate a preference for wide angle color photography that seems ideal for the Grand Landscape, balancing foreground, mid-ground and background elements.  The over reliance, however, on this formulistic approach can often seem contrived to others and also can be self limiting.  Expressing what we feel about a place and time often calls for a different perspective.  One can usually find new sources of inspiration through experimenting with alternative perspectives including the use of Telephoto, Macros, Abstracts, and Black and White.  For more on alternative perspectives see these two blog posts: One: Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty and Two: Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination.

 

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Spirit Angels in the Forest: 400MM Telephoto Perspective

 

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Jade Vines: Macro

 

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Rock Tapestry: Abstract

 

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Mystery: Black and White and 500mm Telephoto

 

(6) Going to New Places

Visiting a new (to you) place can be a powerful source of inspiration building excitement, passion, and enthusiasm.  One often experiences completely different landscapes than one is accustomed to see and this helps separate us from our habitual way of  viewing and experiencing our small world leaving us open to fresh visions and possibilities.   I try to plan one or two trips a year to places that are markedly different than my own native Pacific Northwest.  This year I visited Kauai and  Death Valley.

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One with the Ocean

When reviewing my images from a a trip in February to Kauai, this one surprised me the most.  I did not at all see my shadow and silhouette in the spray of the wave at the moment of capture.  But there I was, walking into the ocean of Kauai’s Shipwreck Beach, tripod in hand, one with the Ocean!

 

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Death Valley: Mosaic Canyon Wooden Grains

 

(7) Beauty in Familiar and Ordinary Places

One can feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment and inspiration through finding beauty in familiar and ordinary places.  Often this beauty is not obvious and may be hidden.  No where have I gained more traction in developing my skill set than in presenting an ordinary place in the best light.  This is also the ultimate confirmation to others that you have arrived as a photographer through your ability to make even the ordinary look good.  Often this beauty was recognizable to us all along, but conveying this beauty that is often very personal  to others remains a huge challenge.  But if one can communicate a sense of your “Feeling” of a place at these somewhat ordinary and mundane locations, think how much easier it will be to do this at iconic sites and other places where the beauty is so obvious to everyone!

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 Bleeding Hearts of the Forest

I make this small journey  through a quite ordinary forest close to home almost daily but one day last spring this scene jumped out at me, and I rushed home to fetch my serious camera and tripod to create this image! 

 

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Foggy Trail

Most people zip up or down this section of trail through second growth forest on their way to Mt. Si- a first flank peak close to the Seattle area.  But on this foggy day I immediately recognized the potential for impact and beauty on this ordinary stretch of trail.   This trail is so much more than just a conditioning hike (how it is typically regarded).  It is a sanctuary of exquisite beauty just waiting  to be discovered.

 

(8) Taking a break from Photography

Many of my colleagues have taken a break from social media.  Social media, although very useful for gaining exposure,  can also consume too much of our time and influence our creative choices if we chase after popularity.  But just as social media can stand in the way of creative fulfillment, so can photography itself.  Often times we need a break of sorts, a vacation free from photography.  When we return from this vacation, we often will have a much clearer view of where we need to go from a creative perspective.  Experts have known for a long time that excessive and obsessive work  toward a goal (the workaholic syndrome) can actually hinder creativity due to loss of perspective.  Landscape Photography is no exception to this rule.

Often time during a break from photography one can find new sources of inspiration through such activities as reading books, long walks in the woods without a camera, visiting art galleries, and reconnecting with old friends.  I regularly listen to audio books while taking long walks in the forest.  These audio books include biographies on Emerson and John Muir, Emerson’s Essays, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and other titles.

(9)  Keeping a Journal

Julia Cameron in her classic book, The Artist’s Way, established two key activities that help the Artist find new sources of creative inspirations.  Both of these activities help connect the artist to his/her authentic self which is the source of all creativity.  The first activity is keeping a daily journal.  Spend 10 or 15 minutes a day writing in your journal what ever comes up-thoughts, emotions, feelings, impressions.  This journal is not specifically about photography and is more open ended than that.  The purpose of journal writing is getting one more in touch with ones inner self and the subconscious, to fully awaken to who one is as a person.  The next activity is establishing a date with oneself at least once a week.  Landscape photographers need time alone in nature to better connect with who they are as a person uninfluenced by the thoughts or actions of others.  These artist dates will also provide the basis for journal entries that no one reads other than our self.  For more on the authentic self, see my blog post Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self.

 

(10) Internal Sources of Inspiration

“Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart.  Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens..” –Carl Jung

“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self.  There is something which you can do better than  another.  Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.  Do the things at which   you are great, not what you were never made for.”  –Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance.

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Submerged Leaves Under Water

Tapping into Internal sources of inspiration should be the guiding light for all of the the previously mentioned sources of inspiration.  What we are talking about here is getting in touch with the right side of the brain, the wellspring of creativity, emotions, imagination and the subconscious.  We leave behind all societal expectations about where we should go with our photography and art.  This is a journey that  marks the return to nature and our true nature and authentic self.  We create images as expressions of this authentic self.  This marks the integration of the internal and external landscape, with a soulful nature guiding us symbolically to a spiritual  world.  This is a world of paradox.  Even as we descend into the soulful grasp of earthly nature, we are lifted up into a more lofty spiritual realm.   We need both.   Images have emotional impact, and images tell our personal story.  Images now move beyond documentation as we share our experience of a time and place.   The images themselves help us and the viewer transcend this earthly world, and evoke a mood that points to matters that may seem beyond comprehension, the world of pure idea and spirit.   This is nature and landscape photography as art.

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Where the Angels Roam: Mt. Rainier National Park

Conclusion

When we are in a creative rut, many of us need to look to new sources of inspiration.  All of these sources of inspiration discussed in this post can help us in our journey to live a more authentic life when the progression is from external to internal sources of inspiration.  Living a more authentic life will ultimately also provide the needed inspiration for reaching our creative potential with landscape photography.

“Man is never so authentically himself than when at play” –Friedrich Schiller

What Schiller meant by play (also often referred to as a state of flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi)  is when one follows with passion and joy his or her calling,  For me this is Nature and Landscape Photography and I suspect for many who are reading this it is for you also.

 


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.  Thanks!   Erwin