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Creating Photographs with Feeling

Foggy morning near Lake Lowell in Nampa, Idaho.

Into The Unknown

Photography has been a major part of my life for many years. I started shooting snapshots with a toy camera when only seven or eight years old. I graduated to a Kodak Instamatic 110 when I was about ten. I remember fighting back tears when I was told that the Community Education photography class I had registered for shortly after receiving the Kodak camera had been canceled. I was only ten and knew nothing more than how to take snapshots, but I realized that there was more to be discovered. I settled for what that little camera could deliver until high school, when I purchased my first SLR, a Pentax ME Super. I promptly registered for a photography class and was hooked.

Over the years, through both formal education and experience, I have learned that photography can be a meaningful art form. Powerful messages can be delivered and personal feelings can be shared. However, just because photography can do these things, doesn’t mean it always does. Techniques must first be practiced and mastered and personal vision developed so that thoughts and feelings can be successfully rendered in the final image. I constantly stress to my students that technique must be mastered to the point that they no longer have to think about it, it just happens. Then, and only then will they be able to really let their feelings flow into their images.

One cold morning last week I was out by the lake in the dense fog. I was all alone, walking a path I had been on many times before, but this time it was different. At -8°C and all alone in a sea of fog, an eeriness that is hard to describe enveloped me. As I strained to see through the fog, a scene that many times would have appear to me in lighter tones and more neutral in color, appeared instead in darker tones and cold shades of blue. I could barely make out a few warmer shades of color in the brush in the foreground. My feelings were changing the way I viewed the world. The process of photographing the scene before me now became just a formality. The vision of the finished image was already there! Thought, feeling, technique and vision all worked in unison to create a photograph that described how I was feeling better than any words, or at least my words, could.

Sunset, Cannon Beach

Haystack Rock

Haystack Rock and The Needles

Recently I was on the Oregon Coast, hoping to photograph some great skies over the ocean. On most of my trips to the coast I have encountered a great deal of fog, which is interesting, but I was looking for something different. Several evenings looked very promising, and then at the last minute fizzled out. On this particular evening, we had a wonderful sunset, for about 2 minutes, and then the sun dropped below the marine layer and all of the color disappeared. I worked hard and fast to position myself to capture this scene, and it made the entire trip worthwhile!

As is so often the case, the light changed so rapidly that I was very thankful to understand the technical side of photography. If I had been relying on the camera to make all of my decisions, I highly doubt that I would have been successful here. With such a high contrast scene, maintaining detail in both shadows and highlights and keeping good saturation in the color is not an easy task. Some would say to shoot several exposures and layer them, or shoot for HDR. Why, when it can be done, in my opinion, better in a single image? I have been and always will be a fan of getting it right in camera. It makes the printing process so much simpler and usually cleaner and sharper.

To really understand photography to the point of creating what my minds eye sees, and doing so almost without thinking has taken a lot of study, practice, mistakes, evaluation, more mistakes, and on and on. All of that time and effort has paid off for me many times over. One of the hardest things to convince my students of is that it is OK to make mistakes. That is how we learn. I still, after 30 plus years of practice, make mistakes. The difference, though, is that I evaluate them and learn from them. They make be better!

Life in the Field

pacific morning

Lone Gull, Seaside,Oregon

Everyone thinks that the life of a photographer is a dream job. I do love my life and think this is a great job, but I must say it is more difficult (but rewarding!) than most think it to be. I just returned from a photography trip to the Oregon Coast, and I feel like I need a week to recover. While I did get to spend a lot of time doing what I love and visiting some of the greatest places on this planet, the schedule was brutal. It was so exhausting that I didn’t even get on the computer to blog, and I love blogging!

A normal day started at 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. I would get up, get dressed and head out to a predetermined location. I would arrive enough before sunrise to allow me to get a feel for the area and determine what I needed to photograph. Due to the marine layer (fog) that I had all week, I was able to photograph for about two hours before the light became too harsh for my taste. I would then go back to the hotel and clean up for the day and get breakfast. Hiking and exploring were the days activities, often finding new places for the morning and evening photography sessions. After an early dinner, I would head back out with cameras for the evening light. The evening session would keep me going from about 7:00-10:00. I love photographing until it is too dark to focus, as I find some of the most interesting light is after sunset. I then go back to the hotel, download the days images, clean and prep my gear for the morning, and get to bed about midnight or later. After a week of four hours per night of sleep and rigorous schedules during the day I am ready for a break!

Even though I keep a crazy schedule, I love what I do. I have learned to see the world in a different light, one that I love sharing. Even when I don’t have a camera in hand, I see things in my own way. I have learned, as Dewitt Jones puts it, to “Celebrate what’s right in the world.” I look for the extraordinary, and have found that when you look with an open mind, you will find it. That is what makes it worth it.

The Art of Black and White Photography

sand dunes

Bruneau Dunes

I was visiting with another photographer one day and we were talking about quality of light. I rise early and stay up late to photograph during the sweet light hours. This other photographer mentioned that you need the sweet light for color photography, but then switch to black and white during mid-day. I was very surprised to hear him say that and I one hundred percent disagree with him. Light quality is just that, quality. It really does not matter if you are shooting color or black and white. If you want quality light, you must work when the light is good. I have always taught my students that if you learn to shoot black and white, your color work will be much better, due to the fact that you must learn to see tones. Good tonal separation happens when the light is good. That is just another reason to photograph early and late.

The image above was made just as the sun was setting at Bruneau Dunes. The low sun is what is creating the highlight and shadows that sculpt the shape of the dunes. There is also balance between the dunes and the sky. None of this would have happened earlier in the day. For great landscape photography it is a must to photograph during the sweet light, otherwise you are just taking snapshots.

With the advent of digital photography, black and white photography is becoming a lost art. So many photographers just shoot a thousand images and then play with them on the computer to see what will look good as a monochrome image. It used to be, back in the days of film, that you would have to learn to see in black and white. We used filters to shift tones when we exposed the film, and then made additional adjustments in the development and printing stages to get the previsualized image on paper. Now we apply filters after the fact, and we get to watch the development in our “digital darkroom”… computer. It still seems so backward to me. Maybe I am just old school, but I believe that thinking before we press the shutter, like we used to do, will make us better photographers. Thinking more and shooting less is much more effective than the alternative. It will help put art back into our photographs.

Quiet Sea… or is it?

blue sea

Still

The ocean, during the day is alive with activity. It is an exciting place to be. I love beachcombing with my kids collecting all kinds of interesting rocks and shells. Letting the waves crash into you and nearly knocking you down is a fun experience. Watching surfers catch the waves and riding them ashore, flying kites, tidepooling, and the list of activities goes on and on. When the sun sets, though, something magical happens. Everything seems to slow down, at least in my minds eye it does. The sounds become soothing, the fresh ocean breeze is calming to the soul. Yes, the waves of the rising tide are still crashing into the rock lined shore, but in my minds eye I see something entirely different. A long exposure smooths the surface of the wild sea and calms the waves crashing ashore. The cool blue sky bathes the scene in rich cool tones that create a very soothing effect on the viewer. This is what I come to the ocean for!

Previsualization, being able to recognize what it is I really see, and then being able to successfully render that image with the camera is what creative photography is about. Anyone can shoot a thousand images and then find a good one, but to be able to consistently render your feelings in an image is something entirely different. You must know your tools and understand how to use them if you are to create photographs that exhibit what your minds eye sees. It is not so much about what you physically see, but how you interpret what you see.

Grove of the Titans

massive redwoods

Grove of the Titans

A couple of weeks ago I was on a family trip to see the Redwoods, and as usual, I mixed in a little photography as I do with every trip. The first morning I was up before 5:00 AM to make sure I would capture the morning sweet light and headed up Howland Hill Road into the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park toward Stout Grove. One nice thing about being a photographer and getting up early is that you have the world to yourself. When I arrived at the grove, not another soul was around. It was just me and the trees. Peaceful and quiet, I was left to think, meditate and photograph. The experience was awesome, but that is not what I want to talk about today.

After some time of photographing, I heard footsteps behind me, and I turned around and met a wonderful man from New Jersey. He had done a lot of research on the redwoods, and clued me in to a couple of groves of trees that are a bit off the beaten path, and are quite hard to locate without help. Park rangers will not disclose their locations, as they hold some of the largest trees in the world. One of those groves is the Grove of the Titans, home to the 1st, 4th and 5th largest Coastal Redwoods in the world. These massive trees have bases up to nearly thirty feet in diameter. Ten feet is huge, but thirty? To me it was unimaginable. I decided to take my wife and kids with me later that day to locate the grove and then return in better light to photograph.

In the afternoon the five of us headed out on what turned out to be quite the adventure. The first mile or so was a breeze as we were on a well marked and maintained trail. Then the adventure. I knew that we needed to veer off the trail, and we quickly found ourselves bush whacking through dense ferns that were taller than me, although at my height, that is not too difficult! We climbed over downed trees covered in moss and unstable root systems where, if not extremely careful, we would find ourselves slipping and risking twisted ankles or worse. After some time, my youngest two children (13 and 8 years old) had had enough and felt we should turn back. My older son and I felt like we were on the verge of something exciting and move on while my wife turned back with the others. As they turned back, we surveyed the situation and determined that we needed to drop down into the small valley and cross the stream, which we did. As we climbed the bank on the other side…WOW! I have never seen such large trees.

As my son and I stood in the middle of this circular grove of giants, I was speechless. We both stood in silence for a minute, and then my son spoke, “Something happened here.” I was overwhelmed. It was as if we were on sacred ground. I have been in some pretty special places, and the feeling here rivaled the feeling I have had in those other places. I felt like I was in an ancient temple of sorts. I knew that I must come back and photograph, while at the same time I knew that I could in no way do justice to the scene in front of me.

The next morning I arose early again, and with my wife headed to the grove. We arrived, much more quickly this time, as we knew the location and found an easier way in. I sat in the center of the grove again and took it all in. This grove is a large open circle formed by 9 of the largest trees I have ever encountered. In the center is a small mound on which I stood. Again I was in awe of what nature presented me with. I set my camera on the tripod and began photographing, trying desperately to photograph what I felt. The massive tree trunks, tall and majestic, overpower anything and everything in their presence. The quiet, the peace, the beauty of it all leaves in my mind an assurance that there is a God, a Creator who is in control and wants me to enjoy His creations.

Again, as I left the grove, I felt like I was leaving sacred ground. There was a feeling difficult to portray in images. It was something that had to be experienced.