Landscape Photography: Inspiration, Preservation, Conservation and the Environmental Movement

Long waves of blue lupine glistened in the golden hour light as I slowly made my way up Flower Dome. This was a photography oriented Sierra Club Outings trip and none of us were in any particular hurry to arrive at our destination to watch the day slowly to slip back into the darkness of night.

Waves of Lupine and Light

There was plenty of time for conversation along the way and I used this opportunity to check in with Roger about how the trip was going. Roger, a senior trip leader, was mentoring an aspiring trip leader who created this outing as a photography oriented multi-day backpack. Roger showed great enthusiasm about the landscape and spoke mainly about its immense variety, variety that met us at every turn of the trail on this seven day backpack—forested valleys of virgin trees, tall sub-alpine grassy meadows, fields of boulders stretching out to the distant horizon, steep hillsides of mountain huckleberries and stunted trees, Lyman Glacier leading up and over Spider Gap, mountain lakes, passes with views reaching out in every direction, and flower meadows. Roger did not dwell much on the iconic spots of beauty we experienced along the way, Image Lake and Flower Dome, giving them no more emphasis that all the other parts of the ecosystems along our journey. A long unbroken silence ensued and Roger eventually confided that he was concerned about the type of people that his men-tee and landscape photographer was attracting to the trip. Were these photographers more interested in using this trip as a way to get beautiful iconic shots of small slices of this vast Glacier Peak Wilderness Area rather than experiencing the wilderness in its entirety with its immense variety of landscapes? And were these landscape photographers at all interested in learning about current environmental challenges for the region?

Image Lake at Sunrise

This trip was six years ago which seems like almost an eternity in the evolution of digital landscape photography. Much has changed since then and most landscape photographers are now acutely aware of how their role in publishing location specific images on social media can have adverse effects on the landscape. Even a image of a seldom visited site can inspire thousands and sometimes upwards to a million people to think about retracing our steps so they too can take an image of nature at the pinnacle of its beauty. This burning desire to go to these places will still be there regardless if the specific location is shared or not. As landscape photographers, however, it is still difficult for most of us to reconcile the potential negative consequences of sharing an image with our desire to inspire others to develop the same appreciation and love for the environment that got us into photography in the first place. We want it both ways, to inspire others and also to conserve and protect not only these precious environments where beauty is at its pinnacle but also to be good stewards of the earth in general. But is it possible to have it both ways?

I never question the authenticity of a landscape photographer’s belief that they hope to inspire others through their images to participate in the same love, sense of wonder and veneration for nature that they feel while photographing beautiful landscapes. I believe the landscape photographer’s feelings are honest and genuine. But I think it is important for myself and other landscape photographers to recognize that not everyone feels that this kind of inspiration best serves the goals of conservation and the broader environmental movement and may actually be counter productive. The focus of much of landscape photography today is on the sublime beauty of very small parts of vastly larger ecosystems. This is also the case even when we move beyond well known icons such as Delicate Arch, Mount Rainier’s Reflection Lakes, and Tunnel View at Yosemite. Landscape photographers gravitate toward places where nature’s beauty soars toward its pinnacle of beauty regardless whether these places are iconic or not so well known. Even this pinnacle of beauty will not be high enough for the landscape photographer who aspires to go higher still and through composition, photographic technique and artful processing creates a romanticized vision of the landscape . There is no doubt that many of these images inspire others, but do they really support the goals of conservation and the environmental movement that are more focused on protecting larger ecosystems? We will explore this further in the paragraphs that follow.

American Conservation Movement Early Beginnings

To understand the roots of the American Conservation Movement we first must go back to the predominant view toward nature at the time of the founding of this nation. For this underpinning we need to look no further than this biblical passage:

” Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth. Genesis 1:28”

This of course provides a scriptural basis for the concept of Manifest Destiny. It is our destiny to lay claim to and settle the American wilderness. During this time no one thought much about the consequences of their actions toward the environment. When one looked out west, America contained vast swaths of seemingly unlimited wilderness available for settlement. In his now famous thesis, The Frontier in American History published in 1893 (1), Fredrick Jackson Turner established the settlement of the American Frontier moving further and further west as a stream of events that shaped the psyche of the American People and made them unique-their love of freedom of the frontier, distaste for authority, self reliance and independence—a distinctive willingness to seemingly forever reinvent themselves at places where new settlements met a wilderness frontier. It is somewhat ironic that at the opening of his thesis Tuner announces that at the close of the nineteenth century and with the push of settlements out to the west coast, there is now no new American frontier. While this was true in a geographic sense, the idea of the American frontier even today is internalized in the American psyche as is evident in the attitudes of many that there are vast swaths of unspoiled land out there and no one needs to worry much about developing new land as there is an endless supply. We see this even among photographers who suggest there are an endless supply of wilderness locations of potentially iconic value just waiting to be discovered. At least in Washington State based upon my long history of wilderness travel I know that this is clearly not the case, and yet these attitudes persist–all we have to do is move to the next frontier.

Mind Wandering in the Desert
As much as I love the Mesquite Dunes of Death Valley, it hardly feels like wilderness to me when I see thousands of foot prints going in chaotic directions everywhere I look. Photoshop has made it easy to erase some of the negative aspects of the experience, but it does effect how I feel about the place.

Beacons of Light
Zabriske Point is only about an hour and a half from Las Vegas and its proximity shows. Death Valley is the largest National Park in the continental US and is also one of the most loosely regulated. Social trails crisscross this area every way one can imagine and new ones are sprouting up all the time. Down below in the valley scores of workshops head out onto the mud playa and visible damage is everywhere. How much longer can this be sustained? Are we furthering the cause of conservation by joining this stampede visiting these areas?

With the rapid industrialization of America in the Nineteenth Century and some of its negative consequences, a group of writers known as the American Transcendentalists, chief among the Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, began offering a substantially different view of nature. The transcendentalists held that people through nature could directly experience the spiritual realm without any assistance from organized religion. The path of transcending the ordinary material world was through contemplation and direct experience of nature, both within oneself and in the natural world outside of oneself.

In his essay Nature Emerson describe the experience of transcendence this way:

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite spaces, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

If nature provides the window into transcendence and living a more fulfilling life, does it make sense any longer to conquer and subdue nature? After all, a conquered and subdued nature is no longer available to support personal and spiritual development.

Who will provide the grand design, what is yours and what is mine?
‘Cause there is no more new frontier, we have got to make it here
We satisfy our endless needs and justify our bloody deeds
In the name of destiny and in the name of God-” The Last Resort by the Eagles Don Henley/Glen Fry

Denali National Park
If the American Frontier exists anywhere any longer it is here in Alaska, but I must admit with the steady procession of tourist buses headed toward the Denali back country and countless cameras dangling out the bus windows, when I was there a few years ago it hardly felt like a frontier to me.

Emerson met a much younger Thoreau at Harvard and encouraged him to explore transcendentalism and start writing a journal. Eventually Emerson granted Thoreau permission to build a small cabin on his land at Walden Pond where Thoreau conducted a two year experiment living in harmony with nature. The written account of this experience in his book titled Walden Pond provided a modern day source text or scripture, for an emerging environmental movement. For more on Thoreau and the Transcendentalist movement see my blog post Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

With the arrival of the twentieth century, the negative consequences of rapid development were becoming obvious to many Americans-soil erosion due to excessive grazing and poor farming practices, deforestation, and polluted air. This spawned a growing back to nature movement and John Muir tapped into this sentiment becoming a spokesperson and advocate of an emerging environmental movement. Muir advocated preserving wilderness areas for their own sake, and much of this effort was focused on landscapes with breath taking scenery, the Yosemite Valley and the Sierra Mountains. Muir started the Sierra Club as an organization to help promote preserving wilderness lands and the club eventually recruited Ansel Adams to be be their resident photographer to assist in this cause. Adams’s images focused on the sublime beauty of the region bringing to many artistically crafted Black and White images of such iconic places as the Yosemite Valley and the High Sierras.

From Preservation to Conservation

During the early part of the Twentieth Century a battle emerged between preservation and conservation. Although preservation and conservation may seem like they are addressing the same thing, protecting the environment, there is a key difference. The US Forest Service describes the difference this way: ” Conservation is generally associated with the protection of natural resources, while preservation is associated with the protection of landscapes” Conservation seeks the proper use of nature, while preservation seeks protection of nature from use. Conservation focuses on the sustainable use of natural resources and therefore accepts such commercial uses as forestry, creation of water reservoirs, and even eco-tourism as long as these uses are consistent with the sustaining the natural landscape as a natural resource.

Evening has Come to Pass
John Muir said of the Mount Rainier Wildflowers “the most luxuriant and the most extravagantly beautiful of all the alpine gardens I have ever beheld in all of my mountain-top wanderings.” I could not agree with him more!

These two perspectives came into conflict during the later part of Muir’s life with the proposed damning of the Hetch Hetchy River in the Yosemite National Park. The City of San Francisco claimed it needed the water for the city water supply and also falsely claimed that access to this source of water would have prevented the San Francisco Fire. Muir’s, nemesis, conservationist Gifford Pinoget, argued that damning the river to create a water supply was in the best interest of society. Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief Forester of the United States argued that conservation of natural resources was best achieved through management of the wilderness for the greatest public good. With Muir saying “Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the hearts of man” the two view points could not be further apart.

Hetch Hetchy Before and After Photos–the before image reminds me a bit of the Yosemite Valley which managed to dodge a similar fate.

In the end In the end Gifford’s point of view won out, and Congress passed legislation that enabled the creation of a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley. President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill into law on December 19, 1913. But Muir succeeded in the elevating awareness of the consequences of Gifford’s perspective on the environment making it easier to win similar battles in the future including one which would have dammed the Grand Canyon.

From Conservation to Environmentalism

As America and the World for that matter approached the twenty first century and beyond, awareness increased of significant life threatening environmental problems such as destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, air pollution, acid rain, and contamination of the oceans . This helped move the focus of attention beyond local, state, and even national borders. With the recognition of these problems that transcend borders, the environmental movement began broadening its focus beyond just preserving wilderness areas with aesthetic value to taking steps needed to confront these much larger issues. Many began seeing the global environment itself as interrelated organism where the actions of humans were the primary cause of major imbalances. Many started to question whether it was even possible to manage resources in a manner that would keep the environment in balance and began advocating more drastic measures to head off the destruction of the planet (3).

Conservationism, properly understood, employs traditional values of environmental stewardship. A good steward takes care of what has been entrusted to him or her, thereby leaving an inheritance for the next generation. In the past many thought this stewardship could be accomplished in a manner that also protects and even promotes economic interests. As the focused shifted from Conservation to Environmentalism many began to doubt this. A divisive political landscape emerged where some political leaders turned a blind eye to environmental threats primarily because addressing these threats would have an adverse effect on the economy and would also move us closer to what they feared was creeping globalism and loss of national identity. This helps explain part of the reason behind the irrational denial of the reality of global warming by many American citizens.

Golden Gate Bridge at sunset
Upon my recent visit to the San Francisco Bay Area I was astounded at the beauty and immensity of the Marin Headlands Natural Areas just across the bridge from the populated city. Are not these wide open spaces just as important to us as distant wilderness areas?

Preservation, Conservation, Environmentalism and My Personal Journey

As a landscape photographer each of these trends in the evolution of the environmental movement continues to effect me. I no longer seek to conquer the next frontier in landscape photography with daring treks to locations known to no other, in Washington State these locations no longer exist as has been the case for quite some time now. My frontiers have moved inward and have more to do with bringing to the photograph my highly personalized experience of the scene. I am still a big proponent of preserving all remaining road-less places commonly thought of as wilderness areas. Designated wilderness areas represent only 2 percent of the continental America landmass and are far too precious to be squandered for any economic gain. The drumbeat of the economy will not skip a beat if we keep these areas commercial free zones, shutting out potential mining and drilling interests. But I now recognize that many of these areas are wilderness in name only with commercial establishments common around their periphery, and through Eco-tourism including photography workshops throngs of people visit these places every day. The idealized concept of the wilderness, a kind of pristine and untrammeled Eden, exists primarily in photographs from professional and serious amateur landscape photographers, not in reality.

Garden in Paradise
This near far focus stacked image is actually fairly close to what a person would see from a low perspective, but am I trying to create the impression of a new found Eden with this image?
St. Helens First Light
With the eruption of St. Helens Nature has taken us from Ashes back to a kind of Eden, but are we overly romanticizing this event in our countless images with similar perspectives taken from roughly the same area Johnson Ridge?

I have also matured in my perspective about conservation and sustainable use of the land. We cannot only focus on preserving areas of sublime natural beauty if this comes at the expense of loosening protections of surrounding areas that provide critical habitat to birds and wildlife. Commercial harvesting of timber in our national forests need not have adverse effects on the environment and may even help control the spread of diseases and provide important fire breaks. Ecosystems extend way beyond National Parks and Wilderness Areas and some lead right up to the door highly populated metropolitan areas. Conservation of these ecosystems and protection of biodiversity out of necessity will need to take into consideration societal and commercial uses of this land. With my increasing awareness of environmentalism and that I live on a planet where all ecosystems are interconnected, I now also realize that although I may act locally I also need to think globally. We cannot solve such problems as global warming and contamination of our oceans without reaching out across national borders. Environmentalism has also taught me that ultimately I may need to make sacrifices to ensure the health of the planet, reducing activities with a heavy carbon footprint such as consumption of meat and use of cars to frequently travel to far away wilderness areas.

Rainier Rising Over Nisqually Delta
This wildlife refuge borders the highly populated Greater Seattle Tacoma area, and hardly meets the definition of wilderness, but from a conservation perspective this is one of the most valuable partials of land around for providing essential habitat to birds, fish, and wildlife.

Back to our original question–Is it possible for landscape artists to inspire others through their creations to be good stewards of the environment? First let us look at this from a historical perspective of how one Landscape Painter, Albert Bierstadt, and one Landscape Photographer, Ansel Adams, had a profound impact through their ability to inspire to also shape the perceptions of the public on the environment in a positive way. Although Bierstadt is not a photographer, in his time painting was the primary visual method of artistically representing the landscape and his approach continues to have a major influence on landscape photographers in the present day.

Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West (2)

The Last of the Buffalo by Albert Interstate 1888

In the above image, “The Last of the Buffalo” the legendary artist Albert Bierstadt portrays a dramatic confrontation of a Native American Plains Indian in a with a large buffalo. In this confrontation both the buffalo and Indian are going to die. The scene itself is heavily romanticized bearing little resemblance to anything real. The landscape itself is a composite of several scenes, with mountains, canyons positioned unusually close to the wide open prairie. Although there is a seemingly endless supply of live buffalo in the distance, old buffalo skulls and fresh carcasses are in the foreground and still other animals look at the confrontation with unusual interest. The image is not only a blend of different scenes but also a time blend of an earlier more Eden like wilderness with the end of the innocence in the decisive moment of the confrontation.

This was Bierstadt’s last painting completed toward the end of the Nineteenth Century close to the time when Turner announced that the frontier in American history had ended. By this time Bierstadt was acutely aware that the once vast heards of buffalo were nearing extinction and that most Native American tribes had already moved to distant reservations of largely undesirable land. Bierstadt intended this painting to not only raise awareness of the blight of the Buffalo and the need for conservation practices to protect remaining animals, but also to raise awareness of how the conquering of the American Frontier Wilderness displaced and brought great harm to indigenous populations.

The painting itself which was very large measuring 6 by 10 feet sold for $50,000, a record price for any piece of American art work in the 19th Century. The Last of the Buffalo in a immediate sense reflects Biersdadt’s reaction to the poaching of the Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. The painting had enormous impact in raising awareness of the near extermination of the Buffalo with influence reaching to the top levels of the US Government and a short time later new measures were put into place to manage and preserve remaining Buffalo in Yellowstone National Park.

Ansel Adams : Landscape Photographer and Conservationist Influencer Extraordinaire

Even today, no other landscape photographer is more associated with efforts to preserve wilderness areas than Ansel Adams. And yet is is difficult to point to any single image as the one that carried the message forward of the need to conserve and protect wilderness. Adams’s ability to capture the beautiful mystique of the wilderness, an emotional feeling that transcends the realism of the physical space that was also accurately represented in his images, is without parallel. When seeing his images, who would not want to preserve the last remnants of America’s beautiful wild places?

Mount Williamson 1944-thisis one of Adams’s most famous images and example of his capturing the “mystique of nature”. Adams took this photograph during his voluntary assignment to photograph life at the internment camp located at Manzamar for Japanese Americans during the second world war. The boulders in the foreground beautifully echo the shape of the distant peaks. Adams was convinced that the beauty of the Eastern Sierra provided the internees some respite from their captivity, but one could also view the field of large boulders as a metaphor for the challenges of living a life in prison when one committed no crime.

Adams’s role in the environmental movement started at an early age, when the Sierra Club took notice of his photos and recruited him as guide and their official photographer. Not long after that Adams was offered a board of directors position which he held from 1934 to 1971. The Sierra Club used Adam’s Images from his 1934 book titled Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail to help promote the creation of a new national park in the Kings River region of the Sierra Nevada.

The book Sierra Nevada The John Muir Trail influenced both Interior Secretary Harold Ickes and President Franklin Roosevelt to embrace the Kings Canyon Park idea. Ickes showed Roosevelt Adams’s book and Roosevelt was so smitten with the beauty of Kings Canyon he kept the book that Adams had originally give to Ickes. When the Roosevelt administration asked the Sierra Club to help support what they envisioned as a road-less and non-commercialized Kings Canyon National Park, the Sierra Club immediately tapped Adams to go to the United States Congress to help promote the idea. Although the there was a fierce debate in congress, the bill passed and the park was formally created in 1940. Imagine this today, the executive branch of government and the Sierra Club joining forces in the cause of conservation!

Half Dome Reflection
I am forever grateful to John Muir, Ansel Adams, and others for helping preserve this National Park Treasure

Ansel Adams is an excellent example of a landscape photographer who could inspire others to support conservation causes through the sublime beauty of his landscape images alone. These images did not overtly support conservation causes or document environmental issues. His ability to inspire, motivate and encourage others to aid the cause of conservation rested solely on the respect he earned through his realistic representation of the natural world in the creation of his emotionally charged black and white images. In this role he is an excellent example for other landscape photographers to use their influence to support the higher cause of preserving and protecting the natural environment.

Lower Yosemite Falls
I can only imagine the sense of wonder that trailblazers John Muir and Ansel Adams felt with their first encounters of the Yosemite Valley

Reflections on Bierstand and Adams and a Changing Social Environment

These are just two examples of visual artists who had a profound effect on shaping the American perception of environmental issues. There are countless others both in the past and who are currently active, but I chose to concentrate on these two because of their special historical significance. Through their ability to inspire others with their creations they also helped shape the political landscape resulting in changes the helped preserve and protect the environment. It can be argued that both individuals created idealized representations of the landscape. Their focus was primarily on places where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, not giving much attention to the more mundane aspects of nature. But it is the more mundane nature that is more typical of larger ecosystems that extend far beyond areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty. This might not have been much of a concern during the time period time of these two artists. But as we move forward to the current age where social media dominates as the primary way images are communicated much has changed.

Before and After Pictures of California Poppy Fields during the 2019 Super Bloom
Photo Credit worldsokayesthiker

Captivating images of places that are inherently beautiful (even with just a cell phone snapshot) can draw thousands of people to a site in a very short period of time. We saw this recently during the 2019 super bloom in Southern California where in a short period of time social trails emerged where there were none before due to a rapid influx of social media tourists-tourists who find out about a picture/selfie worthy spot of extreme beauty through posts made on social media. In this new social media reality many Landscape Photographers are reconsidering how they share images of beautiful locations. The initial reaction was to stop geotagging or providing specific location descriptions of where the images were taken. An organization called Nature First: An Alliance For Responsible Nature Photography emerged to offer positive principles for Landscape and Nature Photographers to follow:

  1. Prioritize the well-being of nature over photography.
  2. Educate yourself about the places you photograph.
  3. Reflect on the possible impact of your actions.
  4. Use discretion if sharing locations.
  5. Know and follow rules and regulations.
  6. Always follow Leave No Trace principles and strive to leave places better than you found them.
  7. Actively promote and educate others about these principles.

Latter developments included public shaming of landscape photographers who violated leave no trace rules especially those who wandered off trail into flower fields. Although I believe both of these reactions, along with including reminders in posts about leave no trace principles, have had some impact in slowing down the pace of environmental damage caused by social media tourists, it has not stopped the damage that continues to creep further and further forward.

Future Steps

What is needed at this juncture in our history I believe is for landscape and nature photographers is to reevaluate what they take images of to begin with, not just focusing on the small areas where nature reaches its pinnacle of beauty, but to include in our portfolios a more balanced representation of the larger environment in which these areas of often idealized beauty are located. In short we need to get people excited about protecting and preserving nature in the broader sense, the environmental ecosystem/s, not just specific locations whether geotaged or not. For this we will also need to inspire people to develop a reverence for nature, and share more about our experience of nature and less about specific locations. In the remainder of this article I will discuss these steps in greater detail that landscape photographers can take to help shift the focus of attention and accomplish this goal.

Step One: Create and Post More Balanced Portfolios

Rather than put all your energy into creating a single epic image from a location, aim instead to create a balanced portfolio of images that better represent the variety of scenery in the environment you visited including its various ecosystems. In the pre-social media era this used to be more of the norm. Images were shared in collections often using slide shows, online galleries, or even heaven forbid albums with actual paper prints. It was common to see in these portfolios not only images of specific sites of iconic beauty (weather well known or not so well known) such as high mountain lakes and waterfalls, but also images of the macro world, intimate scenes, geological features, trees and the forest floor-in other words all aspects of the environment one has visited. Social media has reduced our attention span to less than a second per image so most photographers shifted their focus to just putting their most immediately impactful (not necessarily their best) image forward. For some photographers this also meant taking fewer risks and going to specific locations that have a proven track record of yielding popular images on social media sites. We all know some of the sites I am talking about: Mt. Rainier’s Little Tipsoo Lake, Delicate Arch, Oxbow Bend in the Tetons and numerous others that appear all to much in social media posts. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as these posts draw even people to these over visited tiny sections of our National and State Parks–this has got to stop and each of us can help. It will not stop through merely withholding location data-people are far too smart for that. As we publish more balanced portfolios and people get exited about the larger environment and variety of scenery, flora fauna, and geology–we will help stop the stampede and inspire others love for all of nature, not just an overly idealized wilderness Eden that Jackson Turner informs us long ago vanished with the settling of the American Frontier.

Creating more balanced portfolios may at first seem contrary to a highly curated approach to releasing nothing but the best images, but this need not be the case. I have seen excellent portfolios consisting of between three and five images. The portfolio taken as a whole is almost always greater than the sum of its parts and some of the images within the portfolio such as excellent macro and intimate scene images may actually be rescued from social media obscurity as they achieve better context through their association with a strong balanced portfolio. Providing a backstory behind all of the images along with some natural history will also help establish needed context. Individual images can have their own stories and descriptions ideally presented as mini chapters of the larger story of nature and the environment. Portfolios where appropriate can also include images that are more documentary, highlighting before and after changes to the environment resulting from either good or bad behavior. The recent trend in including stories with multiple images on Instagram and Facebook is a step in the right direction, but many of these posts at this juncture still seem incredibly shallow to me. We need to take this to the next level of actual portfolio posts of images that can be viewed in more depth for longer periods of time than a quickly disappearing story.

Providing context to images will have the added benefit of helping arrest the sense of burnout many of us feel looking large collections of nothing but once in a life time epic images. After awhile we suffer from epic beauty overload. We appreciate images with epic sunsets, rainbows, and flowers at peak bloom in part because these are rare occurrences. But when we see it all of the time it is no longer rare. The viewer will only be able to participate in the emotions and experience of a rare event if the portfolio also has images that include some of the more mundane aspects of nature. These are absolutely necessary for the unfolding of the portfolios story. Consider it a creative challenge to present some of these more mundane aspects of nature in a creative light that will draw the viewer in. This is far more a meaningful test of ones photographic and artistic skill set that taking a compelling image of what everyone already knows is one of earth’s most beautiful places.

Step 2: Inspire Others to Develop a Reverence for Nature

With Thoreau’s publishing of Walden at the time the settlement of the American Frontier was reaching its end, Thoreau introduced to us a fresh vision of nature-not as a wilderness at the frontier waiting to be conquered (or in modern times something to be checked off of ones bucket list), but rather as the source of our personal and spiritual transformation. Thoreau himself found his spiritual fulfillment not in some faraway place of iconic beauty, but rather along the humble shores of Walden Pond only a few miles from his original hoe in Concord Massachusetts. This pond, a symbol for the care of the soul and self realization, can be anywhere and is most likely to physically exist close to where we are in the here and now. Ultimately Walden is beyond the physical realm, and is in the hearts and minds of each of us waiting to be discovered. For more on Thoreau and Walden Pond see my blog post: Journey to Your Own Walden Pond: Thoreau’s Legacy and Message to a Modern World.

Walden Pond Rivisted
The journey to Walden pond for each person will be different, but all of us will share in a common vision of transcendence.  This pond for me is my Walden Pond close to where I live in Washington State USA.    I believe for me that it evokes some of the same mood of  the transcendent that Thoreau felt at the shore of the actual Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. 

In my encounters with Nature and Landscape Photographers I have found that most of them quietly share this Thoreauvian vision of nature as a source for spiritual fulfillment. For most of us Nature and Landscape Photographers Nature is our sanctuary. What better way to inspire others to share in this vision of Nature than taking the example from Thoreau and visiting Nature in close by places? What better way to shift the focus overly visited spots to nature in all of her manifestations than use our photographic and artistic skill set to find and unleash the often hidden beauty of nature in close by and often overlooked places? The beauty of these places in Thoreau’s words may not “rise to the level of grandeur”, but the beauty is there nevertheless. Once others see this beauty in our images, they will not want to retrace our footsteps to the same location but will be inspired to find nature’s subtle beauty everywhere, including in their own back yards.

Bleeding Hearts of the Forest
This is a beautiful scene taken in a quite ordinary second growth forest across the street from my house. I doubt hoards of people will be visiting this spot any time soon!

Step 3: Share More of Your Experience of Nature and Less About Specific Locations

Rising from the Clouds
Numerous people asked me for the exact location of this image and I politely ignored their requests. A simple Mt. Baker I thought was sufficient for an image that had more to do with a combination of unusual weather conditions along with my own state of mind.

I have found that when I visit a National or State Park and let my own intuition guide me to what excites me about a place, it usually has more to do with the journey of movement through nature and the landscape and less about specific locations. I will call this the personal experience of nature. Getting this experience and associated emotional reactions into an image we share is no small task. It is relatively easy to go directly to known spots along the way the have high image potential, but our strongest images may not be there. Our strongest images will be those that integrate our internal experience of the place, call it our inner landscape, and the outer world of nature. Many of these images will not be at the obvious places of beauty. Creating and sharing our personal experience is also what will make our images more unique and better aligned to our personal vision. For more on personal vision see my blog post: Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self. There will be less emphasis on merely documenting a scene, however beautiful that scene may be, and more emphasis on creating art that although faithful to the material world leads to the transcendent and encourages others to embark on similar personal journeys through nature. For more on the transcendent in photography see my post: Transcendental Nature Photography: Creating Images with Lasting Impact. For more on sources of inspiration including internal sources see my blog post Sources of Inspiration.

Epilogue

Fast forward six years and I am on a return journey to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area, once again with my friends from the Sierra Club. We are doing the 50 miles Spider Gap Buck Creek Pass Loop. Much has changed since my last trip six years ago. I notice there are about three times as many people doing this strenuous loop trip. What brought all these people here? Did I help contribute to the popularity of this loop trip through my social media posts? If hoards of people found this arduous multi-day backing trip deep into the heart of Washington’s most remote Wilderness Area is there anything left unexplored? Is there any longer a wilderness frontier for Landscape Photographers willing to go the extra mile or even the extra 20 miles?

Spyder Gap and Upper Lyman Lakes Basin

As I descend from Spyder Gap down a glacier toward the Upper Lyman Lakse basin I find myself attracted to middle of the day scenes transformed by distant clouds softening the light and changes in my own attitude. I am no longer just going for the iconic shot of Image Lake in epic conditions and am using my intuition and own thought process to help guide how I make my images. But I still feel the pull of social media shaping my expectations. Clearly I have a long way to go in this photographic journey.

Glacier Peak Gentium Flowers

I think back on earlier threats to this wilderness environment. Kennecott Copper had a legacy mining claim and planned to build a huge open pit copper mine on miners ridge that would have forever marred the epic view that we now take for granted from Image Lake. Thanks to the efforts of countless environmentalists and a land exchange this threat was ultimately put to bed. I think back when I was in my early twenties and made my first journey to Image Lake when I saw a huge group of long haired nature loving young people, scores of tents were pitched at the shore, and evidence of lake shore trampling everywhere. The condition of the lake is actually much better now. Are the selfie happy Instagram influencers any worse than this bunch of characters from my past?

Image Lake Viewpoint
I do not think this scene would be the same with a large open pit copper mine in the distance.

The long arm of history informs us that it is a mistake to assume that everything that is important and significant is happening right now. The current challenges may seem immense but there is opportunity to make a big difference just as there was opportunity at the time when Turner announced that Americas Wilderness Frontier is no more. It was not destiny that drove Albert Bierstadt and Ansel Adams to choose to use their artistry and influence to advance the causes of conservation. Although both were influenced by people who came before them, they both had free will and exercised that free will for the betterment of the environment. They made positive choices. As nature and Landscape photographers we too have free will. Will we use this free will to rise to the occasion? Will we use the artistry and craft of photography to inspire others to love and protect nature everywhere-not just in those spots where her beauty reigns supreme, but in all of her manifestations, some close to home, even out our back door? If we accept Thoreau’s message, that nature points to the divine, then our willingness to accept this challenge may also be the key keeping this pathway open for the salvation of the world and all of its inhabitants both human and non human, every living thing, even the spirits in our material world—keeping a pathway open to sources of inspiration for our children’s children and more generations still to come.

“None of Nature’s landscapes are ugly so long as they are wild”. John Muir

“In Wildness is Preservation of the World” Thoreau

Erwin Buske Photography, Copyright 2019

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.  In addition to this blog I also offer a quarterly news letter. To subscribe click here. Thanks!

References

(1) Frederick Jackson Turner, The Significance of the American Frontier in History, 1893

(2) Peter H. Hassrick, Albert Bierstadt Wintness to a Changing West, 2018

(3) Liz Sonneborn, The Environmental Movement, 2007

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)

picture chart r1

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

 

Silver Spirit Trout0309 copy

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).

Maple Pass1018-HDR

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


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!

 

 

 

 

 

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