Photo Cascadia Blog
May 18th, 2015
There are a few photographers I have met that don’t have any immediate family, by this I mean no significant other and no children. The majority of us have at least one or both. If you are young maybe none of the above still applies yet give it time and it will likely change. I have heard the comment many times that you can’t mix family and photography very well into the same trip and if you want good photos you need to have a photography only trip. I used to think that was mostly true before changing my tune over the years.
Don’t misinterpret what I am saying, I understand it’s a completely different dynamic when you are out on your own or with a few friends photographing versus as a family trying to make time for photos. That said it can work with the right perspective. I am married with young children. I experience family trips in beautiful places working on balancing it all out. Landscape photography is certainly harder than other professions or hobbies that might be all at home or local, rather than requiring travel. Now I look back with quite a few photos in my portfolio from trips taken with my wife, just the kids or the whole family even if they are not carrying a camera or with their radar always on for photos like me.
There is one photo that for some reason sticks out in my mind which relates to this topic. It is from well-known Marc Muench, and I saw it a number of year’s back when he posted on Facebook. You can see more in the link, yet in short it’s about having a small window to get the shot before a child needs your attention or are playing in the middle of shot quite possibly changing the scene. The photo is beautiful storm sky scene and had he not made any comments about his children playing while photographing I would have seen only the serene scene in my head. Without additional context you simply don’t know what is happening outside the view of the lens.
Fortunately I have an amazing wife who is supportive of my photography, and kids that love being outdoors which certainly makes it easier to walk the balance beam of family and photography. That aside there are things to think about that can help balance out unreasonable expectations from reality to make everyone happy in the end.
1. Communicate what your intentions of a trip are ahead of time. If you have one thought and your family has another, these will collide during the trip and you don’t want that.
2. Don’t force a family trip into being 100% about the photos you want to capture. Be okay not getting every shot and moment. Your camera is not the only focus.
3. Support your significant other for their passion or hobby. Your intense burning desire to sprint out the door for photos may not be met with the same level of enthusiasm by your partner if it’s only one sided.
4. Don’t sulk about missing a great sunrise or sunset. Trust me this is not easy yet I am a little more at peace with this now than I used to be when I started photography.
5. Plan your photo trips and family trips (when possible) so it’s not always a surprise. We use a shared online calendar so my wife and I are always in the know of each other’s plans. For example if there is a low tide I want to hit on the coast I add it to our shared calendar so it’s visible to her what I am planning to do.
6. Realize you cannot take endless time scouting and photographing when on a family trip. Ask yourself if this scene is one you want to take or move on. It’s the difference between a scene that you clearly see a great composition vs one you know has good potential yet might take a while working it to get what you want.
7. Take photos of your family; then they won’t feel like it’s all about you. Sometimes they add to the scene for your landscape photos not to mention memories.
8. If you have a young child that still takes naps leverage this. Get up early on the trip for sunrise photography and then catch up on sleep later on during the kids nap time (assuming someone is there while he/she sleeps in). It’s a win-win with photo time and losing little family time.
9. Don’t think every trip needs to be a big multi-week production of thousands of miles on the road or multiple layovers. In many cases a 3 to 4 day trip just for photography allows you to focus without worrying about the balance for a long trip. The reverse can be said too.
10. Include your kids in your photography (hoping they have an interest). Let them take a photo with your camera and show it to them on the LCD. Show them what the buttons and settings do. Even if nothing ever happens to that file it’s the connection to what you’re doing that matters.
11. If you like to spend time with your photography outdoors for hiking, camping and the like don’t wait until your kids are older to expose them to that life. Start young and you will see there is a good chance they will grow to enjoy it making it easier and more fun for everyone later on.
12. If it’s a short single day trip and you have different camera systems bringing your smaller light weight system might be a better approach (ex: your mirror-less system). At least if you bring your larger camera system leave some of your arsenal of lenses and accessories behind so it doesn’t give the appearance you are taking over the day.
It’s been an internal tug-o-war for me since the relationship between photography and I became serious about a decade ago that only over the last couple years have I dealt with much better. Although I love taking photos of primarily nature it’s the photos I have of my family from these trips that I will remember as much or more decades from now. In a matter of days I am off to the Redwoods for 5 nights with my family. The plan is a blended trip of family and photography. Wish me luck on striking the right balance!
If you have stories to share on what works for you (or doesn’t) please feel free to share with a comment on this post.
May 11th, 2015
By David M. Cobb
Over the years I’ve spent a great deal of time visiting art museums, searching out the European masters, the cubists, the impressionists, the Hudson River School, and others. But it wasn’t until I saw Edward Weston’s Pepper #30 that photography entered into the equation. Western art influenced my sense of design and light, and my schooling reinforced those Western perspectives of art.
Later in life other influences came into play, specifically art from Asia. A number of years ago a photographer suggested I read Empty and Full: The Language of Chinese Painting by Francois Cheng. That was the beginning of change for me. I now find myself seeking out Chinese reliefs and Japanese block prints when I roam art museums; their influence helps me incorporate Eastern perspectives into my work. My photography changes but that change can seem frustratingly slow, and sometimes I end up with more failures than successes. With my changing perceptions, the scenes that are more difficult to come by are the asymmetrical compositions—that sense of unbalance that “feels” odd to me. But I’m learning to adapt and must let all that go. There’s now more of a visual emphasis on negative space in many of my compositions, and with that comes an economy of line.
However, it is a struggle. My old eye fights with the new, and the old ways usually win. Some scenes play to my new eye easier than others; for instance a landscape with fog or a mountain shrouded in mist is easier to compose and capture in a new way. With a complex scene in a forest or a desert landscape, I tend to fall back on my western influences. Thoreau stated “simplify, simplify, simplify” and that is what I strive to do more often than not. My compositions succeed when I’m more open to change in my photography and when I’m compositionally deliberate as I reflect on my Eastern influence. With time, my hope is to make this an intuitive thought process.
Examples of current photographers who excel at capturing this Eastern aesthetic in their landscape photography are John Einarsen, Leping Zha, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Hiroshi Watanabe, and John Sexton. A photographer like John Paul Caponigro uses negative space extremely well, especially in his more surreal images. Symmetry and not asymmetry plays a larger part in his photography. His photos have a spiritual and even mystical sense to them (especially his celestial images), which connects well with the Eastern ideal and the land he photographs.
My struggle and creative journey will continue, but that’s part of the challenge and fun that comes from growth.
May 4th, 2015
On social media I get asked all sorts of questions but one of the questions a lot of people are curious about is what happens when a photographer takes a photo tour and what can they expect.
So for this blog I am sharing my trip report from my recent travels to Fairbanks Alaska and what we did and some of the places we visited as well as the activities the group did together.
The 2015 Fairbanks Photo Safaris Tour started off with an introduction dinner at Pike’s Restaurant. This gave everyone a chance to know a little about everyone in the group. After dinner with a promising Aurora Borealis forecast for that evening we decided to get an early start and head up to a great hilltop view called Mount Skiland. This 360 view of Fairbanks and the surrounding area gave an excellent place to photograph Northern Lights. We had been blessed earlier in the week with a lot of new fresh snow and this really made for some spectacular winter landscapes. When combined with the Northern Lights we could not have asked for a better setting. The group was given an orientation on where to best to photograph the lights and had a nice hot cup of hot chocolate. It wasn’t long after the orientation that the magic began and the dark sky had now become dancing beams of vivid greens and reds. Our first night had been a success and we all headed back to the hotel exhausted but too excited to sleep.
The next morning we awoke to sunny skies and snowy surroundings. Some of the group slept-in while others enjoyed a breakfast. After breakfast the group headed out to watch Dog Mushing at the Alaska Dog Mushers Association. The timing could not have been any better as we got to witness a timed trial race where competitors came from all over the world to race. The race would consist of teams of four and six team dog sled races that would race against the clock and their times would be cumulatively added over the two days. Teams of dog mushers would come rushing down the tracks every two minutes with excitement in the racers eyes and voices. They had a way of communicating with one another that was fascinating to hear. We decided to split the group in half as some wanted to photograph the starting line and others wanted to shoot within the snow capped forest. The event lasted most of the afternoon and everyone came away with some great action shots of the dogs and the dog mushers. With everyone hungry from all the action we headed to a close Italian restaurant named Geraldo’s that served some excellent food that really hit the spot. It was nice as the also had a buffet that people really could dig into and really try different types of food. Later that night after some rest at the hotel we got together for a nice dinner at the Cookie Jar Restaurant. This experience will soon not be forgotten as we had a very funny waitress who was very forthcoming with suggestions and places to eat while in Fairbanks. The group ate well as we had another night of photographing the Northern Lights ahead of us. With full stomachs and dressed warmly we headed back to the same area as the night before. Mount Skiland worked out well as it offered a warm chalet for participants to warm up and eat while waiting. Inside the chalet the TV on the wall were hooked up to the webcams so that everyone could see whether the lights were happening. This was a really nice bonus, as we could all stay warm while we waited anxiously. Within a short period the lights had appeared as promised and we were given another magic show where no of the group left disappointed. With several different areas to shoot everybody got a chance shoot from multiple perspectives in photograph the lights in all directions. Although the temperatures were cold this did not matter to anyone in the group. After hours of dazzling light and excitement the group headed back to the hotel.
With are success from the past day of dog mushing we decided to head out and photograph the dog mushers again but try different viewpoints. We also got a chance to see some of the dogs come out of the kennels and hear some background history on the sport. It was a nice chance to see a wide spectrum of dog mushing and all the events that go into a successful event. After dog mushing we headed to the iconic Daddy’s Barb-b-Que for some excellent ribs. At the restaurant we got a chance to take lots of group photos and relive some of your favorite moments thus far. After lunch the group famished from a good meal headed back to the hotel for some rest.
Later that afternoon we all attended the Ice Sculptures and Carving that presented some of the world’s best ice carvers. We decided to head there around sunset so we could photograph the ice sculptures against the backdrop of the sunset, which turned out very nicely. As the sun disappeared and the night set in we then got to shoot the ice sculptures at night when the lights spotlighted the ice carvings.
After a full evening of shooting the ice carvings we went for dinner at the Pikes Landing, which provided some warmth and time to relax. This was well needed as we headed out for another successful night of photographing the aurora borealis after dinner.
The next morning the group packed up as we had a late lunch and headed out of Fairbanks to the Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort has always been one of the top destinations in the world to view Northern Lights and has several winter activities to keep everyone busy during the day. Later in the day we got settled into our new rooms and headed back to the restaurant for some tasty food. We got a chance to all eat in a private room and enjoy some of the five star food. We all well knowing we had a exciting night ahead of us photographing the lights. The group assembled together as dark settled in and we had arranged a snow coach to take the group up to the top of the mountain overlooking the resort. The view was second to none and provided and excellent vantage point for shooting the lights. While waiting for the show to start we all enjoyed some hot chocolate inside the warm lit yurt. The group got a chance to listen to a live band while waiting. Shortly there after the sky turned vivid colors of green and the group got another night of shooting under the magic skies of Alaska.
The next morning the group got out together to shoot around the resort as the winter snow had provided some idyllic scenes for photographing. We got to shoot some frozen ponds, hoar frost trees, and the sun rising through the snow capped trees. It wasn’t long after that that our hungry was calling out for lunch while others enjoyed some time in the hot springs which was a highlight for some of the group. With a short rest the group met up again for a private tour of the dog mushing and history of the events. This was a nice chance to get to pet the dogs as well as photograph them. All of the dogs were excited to have company and provided lots of excitement. We met for dinner later in the afternoon and were met with excellent food again.
As the light faded and the night began the group decided to shoot the Northern lights around the resort to shoot different subjects with the lights. There was plenty to shoot as we had igloos, barns, abandoned cabins, rivers, birch trees, and even an airplane to shoot under the stunning sky. We shoot until the early hours of the morning before retiring for the night.
The next morning some of the group got together to explore the outer regions of the resort and find new possibilities for the upcoming evening of Northern Lights. With a stunning rustic atmosphere the settings could not have been better for shooting. The group throughout the day got some time to relax and take another dip in the Hot Springs. With some of the new possibilities the group headed out for another night of lights where the group leader had brought out his yellow tent and made some different options for subjects. The group huddled around the tent as the Alaskan sky had not let us down. The night had lit up and the night could be heard with cheers all night from its audience.
Night after night we had been fortunate enough to see the Aurora Borealis and capture it in some of the most stunning winter conditions. The group had a chance to photograph in a variety of settings and even had a chance to experiment with different settings
The next morning we all conversed about how lucky we had been to see the magic of nature and headed back to Fairbanks for one last goodbye dinner at the famous Pump House Restaurant. Here we relived the experiences and talked about our favorite things we had seen. We even got the opportunity to try some of the local food that was pretty impressive.
On a full stomach we headed back to the hotel for a well deserved rest. The photo tour had come to a rest but we knew the memories would last a lifetime.
April 28th, 2015
I have been asked quite a few times while leading workshops about what app or device I use for a GPS and for keeping track of locations. I have done a lot of research and given a lot of thought to many of the different apps available for both Android and Apple phones. I purchased a $40 GPS app and also purchased a separate GPS unit and returned it shortly after. The two most important features for me are a good terrain-view, and the ability to easily save locations and label them for future reference. Google Maps makes both of these features possible, and for me it is the best option at this point when not in the backcountry, even though it isn’t perfect.
While scouting out new locations I always have Google Maps up and running and I find that being able to see the terrain, or different elevations, is essential. With terrain, I have an almost 3-d view and can tell where the high and low points are, and even the exact elevation of specific locations. This way I can get an idea where the good views will be. I couldn’t find any GPS app, or separate device with a useable terrain view available.
For me, the ability to just click on the screen of my phone and save a place is really important, especially while scouting, and the ability to click on a location and get directions directly to it from wherever I am is great too. Google Maps allows you to save any location anywhere on the map. The only problem is it doesn’t allow you to simply edit the name of that location. I don’t know why this is, but do know that many people would love this functionality, including myself. There is a work around though.
If you find a good location and want to save it and label it for future reference, here is how to do that. Start by clicking on the screen right where the location is.
Next, click on the red pin. You should now see a star with “save” written under it. Click on that star and it will place a yellow star on the map where your location is. The exact GPS coordinates are available, but as I said before, there is no option to rename it.
There are two ways to keep track of spots that I know of at this time. Hopefully this will become easier in the future. The easiest is to go into Google Bookmarks and you will have the option to rename it there. For me, on my Andriod phone, the new name doesn’t show up by the star on the map, but it is always there in my bookmarks for reference. You can place a shortcut to Google Bookmarks on your phone to it is easy to access and just change the name right when you save the new place.
A feature that has just become available now again after a couple of years, is the ability to use custom maps with the mobile version. If you click on “My Places” in the menu within the app, it will give you a dropdown list of all of your saved places, and maps created within the desktop version of Google Maps. You can create custom maps at home with places to scout and load and use those maps while out on your photography trips. Here is how that works. Go into Google Maps from your computer and create a custom map. When signed into your Gmail account, there should be an option just under the search bar in the upper left called “My Maps”. Click on this and then click “Create”. You can make as many custom maps as you want, and mark and label locations, etc. For me, my starred places don’t show up when I create a new map (they used to in the older version), but I can search for them by cutting and pasting coordinates and mark them that way. You can access these maps on your phone and navigate with them up.
Another feature that is really useful and not available on most other apps and stand alone GPS devices is satellite view. The ability to quickly switch back and forth between terrain and satellite view while out and about is really useful, and can even be done within a custom map.
Another thing that I like about using something like Google Maps vs other apps or stand alone devices is that all of your information will always be with you and linked to your Gmail account. Besides the silly workaround for renaming locations, the other obvious downside to using Google Maps is that fact that you need cell phone reception. I have Verizon and get reception most places so this isn’t an issue too often when on the road. Another thing that helps with this is that Google Maps caches sections of the map so if you do go out of range for a little while you can still navigate. Very helpful, but still not as good as a stand alone device in this regard.
It seems like Google is constantly updating Maps, and many times when they do they take out specific features in an attempt to make it more simple. Then, people complain because those particular features were very useful and they put them back in. The ability to just simply rename starred locations would be an easy update and hopefully something that Google will consider. If any of you have any other ideas or workarounds I would love to hear them. The other GPS apps I have tried just don’t cut it in many ways, and having a separate device with a new learning curve that needed to be plugged in and carried around was a pain. At this point, Google Maps is my go to app for navigation while not in the backcountry where a hand held device is essential especially when venturing off trail or exploring in the snow.
April 22nd, 2015
In the video tutorial below I demonstrate two exciting advances in the April 21 release of Lightroom CC (2015), Photo Merge to HDR and Photo Merge to Panorama. Lightroom has gone through substantial improvements over the years to give photographers more control in developing their images. However, until now, techniques involving the merging of more than one exposure or frame had to be done in Photoshop or third party software. Now you can merge multiple exposures to create HDR images all within LR and you can also merge frames to create both vertical and horizontal panoramas. Wow! Nice job Adobe.
Both merge features combine raw files to produce a merged DNG raw file, which is brilliant! This means we can merge first and make our adjustments directly to the merged raw file, which I assume retains all the adjustment capabilities of the originating raw files. In addition, the merged HDR or pano DNG can be opened as a tiff file in Photoshop for additional developing there.
Lightroom Photo Merge to HDR is similar to the 32-bit HDR tiff file processing capability that was first introduced back in LR 4 and which I demonstrated in a previous video blog and also include in my Developing for Extended Dynamic Range video series. This process is now greatly simplified in Lightroom CC and no longer requires Photoshop!
Photo Merge to Panorama allows you to stitch, crop and develop multi-frame panoramas without needing to go to Photoshop or some other image stitching application, and the panoramic DNG file can be fully developed in Lightroom like any raw file.
Finally, you can create high dynamic range panoramas by first creating merged HDR files for each frame in the pano series and then merging these HDR raw files into an HDR panorama. The resulting output is a high dynamic range panorama raw file that can be fully developed in Lightroom.
While working with merged HDR images in Lightroom still doesn’t provide the same degree of fine control that you can get when manually blending exposures in Photoshop, and I don’t think it handles the most extreme dynamic range as well, it provides an excellent and efficient option for many situations. Photographers who only use Lightroom can now create blended high dynamic range images and panoramas like the rest of us, which is huge for them. I also think that photographers who have previously used Photoshop or other applications to accomplish these types of multi-image blending tasks will find the new functionality of Lightroom to be a great benefit in many cases.
NOTE: Many people have had trouble getting Lightroom CC (2015) to open after it has been installed from the Creative Cloud desktop app. If you have this issue try logging out of your Creative Cloud desktop app (logging out, not closing it) and then logging back in. This fixed the issue for me and many other folks on the Adobe forums. Also, LR CC installs along side LR 5, so you can open either one unless you uninstall LR 5, and this can be a little confusing. LR 5 shows up as “Adobe Photoshop Lightroom” and LR CC shows up as “Adobe Lightroom” on my computer. It would have been nice if Adobe had labeled them Lightroom 5 and Lightroom CC instead.
April 15th, 2015
by Zack Schnepf
One of the most common questions I get on workshops and at art shows is how I got into photography and how I turned photography into my profession. In today’s article I talk about the journey that led me to a career in landscape photography. I always find these types of articles about other people fascinating. What circumstances led them to where they are now, what their upbringing was like, what they studied in school, who their influences were and who helped them get their first break? My own journey begins in the redwoods of northern California.
My early childhood was spent in the mountains, forests and beaches of northern California and the Big Island of Hawaii. My parents instilled a love and respect for nature from the very beginning. I grew up playing outside most of the time. My father was a professional artist and my mom was a stay at home mom who later became an occupational therapist. When I was nine years old, we moved to Portland, Oregon where there was a much better job market. Portland has easy access to mountains, the coast, the Columbia River Gorge, and the high desert. I spent a lot of time camping, hiking, skiing, snowboarding, skateboarding, biking, and generally recreating in all of these places. Those experiences have a lot to do with eventually taking up photography as a hobby. I remember feeling very frustrated when I would see an amazing sunset while camping in a beautiful location, because I couldn’t capture and share it with my friends and family. That frustration eventually led me to take my first photography class at Portland Community College. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first step toward a career in photography.
I loved my college experience, so much in fact, It took me 7 years to finally get a degree. The issue was, I really didn’t know what kind of career I wanted. Luckily, most of that time was spent in community college trying out every course that sounded interesting. Every aptitude test I took suggested I should be a biologist, or an engineer so I starting by pursuing biology and I really liked it. I really enjoyed art as well, but didn’t consider art as a possible career path at first. My father was an artist and most of our family friends were artists so you would think I might have considered that as an option. After a while, I couldn’t ignore how much fun I was having in my art classes and in art history. Along with more traditional art forms like painting, sculpture, ceramics and photography, I was also getting into video editing, web design and 3D animation. Eventually I decided on multimedia. It was a brand new program and seemed very promising and fun. I loved it. I was really getting into computers and software and this seemed like a great way to combine several interests. During this time I taught myself Photoshop, and started tutoring fellow students on some of the more advanced functions of both Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. I was also a teaching assistant for the Photoshop class as well. This proficiency in Photoshop really helped when I started getting into photography.
Once I graduated, I started doing freelance web design, and video editing. I picked up my first real camera during this time, the Canon 10D. I had been doing a lot of research and this camera was coming along at the perfect time for me. It was the first affordable digital SLR that seemed to produce high quality images. As soon as I got my hands on the 10D photography became an obsession. Using a DSLR and shooting in RAW helped me learn a rapid rate. Having the instant feedback and seeing first hand how changes in aperture, shutter speed, and ISO effected the image was incredible. I progressed quickly and was producing high quality images. At the time I was shooting everything I could think of. Much like my college experience, I started focusing on the subjects that were the most interesting to me. Because I was already a pretty outdoorsy person, I naturally was attracted to landscape photography. I also found it to be the most challenging kind of Photography, but I was still experimenting with many types of photography.
I was acquiring some studio equipment and soon found I could find paying jobs doing various types of studio work. I was lucky early on, I had some family friends in the art world who were able to get me some paying jobs with good clients. I had another family friend who was an artist representative, she saw the work I was doing and started to promote my work for me. She was able to land me some big clients like Nike and Hewlett Packard. Photography quickly took over and was my main source of income and just like that I was a professional. While I was doing commercial work, I was also trying to learn all I could about landscape photography. This was where my passion was and I was going on as many landscape photography trips as I could afford. I joined several web forums and groups related to landscape photography to help me learn as much as I could. Three of these were incredible resources for me: NPN, flickr and The Luminous Landscape.
NPN in particular was an incredible resource. Anyone who was a part of NPN during that time will tell you it was special. It was a place where you could get honest feedback on your work. It reminded me of critique sessions back when I was studying art, but with less ego. I met many of my photography friends on NPN including all five of the other members of Photo Cascadia. It was also a fantastic place to find inspiration. There were so many talented photographers contributing like: Guy Tal, Marc Adamus, Adam Gibbs, Marsel Van Oosten and so many others. We all progressed as a group, it was in invaluable resource to me and many others.
The luminous Landscape website and video magazine was also a huge resource for me. Michael Reichmann and his colleagues are incredible educators. I subscribed to the video magazine back then and it was fantastic. It was kind of like a video workshop following Reichmann and his friends on their adventures in the field and talking about the emerging world of digital photography. I eventually took several field workshops through the Luminous Landscape and found them to be tremendously helpful, so much so that I still try to emulate the experience in my own workshops today.
While I was enjoying landscape photography more and more, I was burning out on commercial photography. I had to make a tough choice. I could continue as a commercial photographer and make some decent money, or I could take a huge gamble and try to make it as a landscape photographer. To make this decision even harder, my wife and I were starting a family, I really struggled with this decision. I didn’t really have any idea how I would make a living in landscape photography, but I thought it was worth a try. It was a rough transition, and there were some lean years in the beginning, but I started to figure out a business model that would work for me.
Another photographer I met on NPN was Mike Moats, he encouraged me to give art festivals a try. Once I had honed my craft to a level I was really proud of, I started applying to juried art festivals. These are a lot of fun, but they require a large initial investment in show equipment and inventory and are also a lot of work. I was also starting to teach one on one and small group field and processing workshops. I also started teaching processing sessions online. I was working on building a library of images with several stock agencies and submitting images to publications as well as licensing images on my own. All these slices started making up an income pie. Most of the professional photographers I know have a similar business model. Some specialize more than others, but they all have diverse income streams. It took several years, but I was finally making about what I was making as a commercial photographer. The difference is I still absolutely love what I do and still get excited to get out and shoot. Even though it was really hard, it was definitely the right decision for me.
It’s been quite the journey. I hope you enjoyed hearing my story and the decisions that led me to where I am today. Cheers!
April 6th, 2015
Last week we introduced and welcomed Erin Babnik as a new contributor to the PhotoCascadia blog. This week we are proud to publish Erin’s first feature piece. Make sure to visit Erin’s website to learn more about her and explore her exhilarating photographs.
By Erin Babnik
The American conservationist Aldo Leopold famously said that, to people with imagination, the most valuable parts of a map are where it is “blank.” He was of course referring to wilderness areas, which most people never see and have to imagine in order to appreciate what is there, how it works, and why it matters. Although his message was aimed at the protection of these areas, he felt that humans should have firsthand experiences with them. It may seem counterintuitive for someone to encourage human presence in areas that need protection, but he believed that it was necessary for us to develop personal relationships with nature—after all, to quote one of Leopold’s contemporaries, “we can only love what we know” (Aldous Huxley). He therefore praised outdoor activities that imposed minimal impact on nature while fostering awareness and appreciation of it. Landscape photography at its best rises to the challenge of that noble goal, giving photographers at least one good reason to spread out and explore those blank places on the map. What about more artistic reasons, though? As I hope to explain here, the rewards of exploration and discovery can be well worth the extra effort that may go into approaching new horizons.
It is easy to think of a map as a display of straightforward, factual information, but it is actually an interpretation of a place, just like a photograph is. A map picks out certain areas and omits others, telling us what is supposedly important to know. In general, any point of interest that features prominently on a map will have a correspondingly large corpus of photographs representing it; the more famous that a place becomes through photographs, the more likely it will be to appear prominently on a map, and vice versa. Just like a map, a large corpus of photographs will ultimately interpret a location, typically establishing a norm for it that repeats in photographs like a resounding echo. These patterns emerge for good reasons, usually because they do a particularly good job of communicating what is special about a place, but they also amount to a kind of conceptual baggage, both for photographers and for viewers of their photographs. Whether we like it or not, a norm will haunt a place, even if we attempt to avoid it—we can accept or reject a norm, but our efforts exist in relation to it either way. This predicament then extends to the viewer, since the process of viewing a photograph will involve whatever memories a viewer may have of existing imagery.
While preconceptions can complicate the creative process for a photographer, they certainly don’t condemn it, of course. On the contrary, representing a well known view comes with its own set of benefits, and those include more than just the tangible rewards of popular appeal, such as predictable print sales or image licensing. Some creative strategies actually depend upon familiarity to serve as a premise, allowing a photographer to expand upon existing ideas or to engage in visual storytelling in ways that might not be possible otherwise. For example, a photo of a blooming meadow will take on a new layer of meaning if its location is best known for a lake that filled the space before it evaporated. Similarly, a photo of a famous landmark may be particularly interesting or meaningful if it shows that landmark from an ‘unusual’ vantage point. In either case, the ‘different’ photos benefit from familiarity by creating a sort of dialogue with it.
So while the photographer who strives for creativity will find much of value in approaching those bold points of interest on the map, doing so can feel like an act of negotiation, of working within certain creative limits. To be sure, there is room for discovery at any location, but venturing out to relatively unknown territory can throw the creative doors wide open. Any view that we find independently becomes a blank canvas of sorts; it presents a whole range of wonderful creative ‘problems’ to solve. What is the character of this place? What is particularly special about it? What conditions might best bring out its character? Which features here are essential to communicating the experience of this location? How can those features be presented most legibly? Answering such questions gives a photographer the opportunity to ‘define’ the location and to do so with a greater reliance on personal intuition—the less that we have to ‘think away’ other interpretations of a place, the more able we are to have a visceral response to it.
Naturally, more remote locations tend to offer the most opportunity for discovering seldom seen views, but even very accessible places sometimes have areas that get overlooked simply because they lie in the blank place on the map. Operating with an explorer’s mentality can land us deep in the wilderness or right in our own local ‘neck of the woods,’ but either way, we will be invoking a creative process that can be incredibly rewarding. Indeed, researching lesser known areas raises numerous questions that can get the creative gears churning before we ever even leave home. What might I find there? What would I like to find there? How might this place differ from others with similar qualities? How might this place be affected by the seasons? Thinking through the possibilities at this stage becomes a prelude to the visualization process that takes place on location, priming the mind for seeing opportunities upon arrival. In this regard, the photographer is led more by imagination than by knowledge, which is arguably more conducive to creativity. Regardless of where our exploration may take us, we are bound to benefit from the creative exercise, even if we don’t strike pay dirt on every outing.
For anyone who is inclined to explore more remote locations for landscape photography, there are a number of resources that can aid in the process. Using Google Earth to explore an area virtually can be a great place to start, allowing the identification of potentially photogenic features and alignments. Topographical maps can also be very helpful in this regard, especially when researching areas where elevation varies a lot and can have a big effect on the types of terrain that might exist there. For example, for mountainous areas, it can be helpful to know if a location is below the tree line, where forests may obscure views. Satellite imagery is another digital resource that any explorer should consult, with the understanding that older satellite images can be quite inaccurate. It is always a good idea to check the date of a satellite image and to look for multiple sources of such imagery. There are companies that sell very high-resolution satellite images that could be worthwhile investments if the images are very current and can aid in the location of desirable features. When exploring on foot, it is immensely helpful to have a good topographical map app that supports offline maps and the creation of waypoints; being able to mark discoveries and to navigate towards areas of potential interest with ease will increase both efficiency and the overall enjoyment of the process.
Although venturing into the unknown is always a gamble, the rewards can be tremendous. There is nothing quite like the thrill of discovering a vantage point, feature, or composition that provides a sense of creative pioneering. Whether an act of exploration takes us to distant lands or to an overlooked niche in our own neighborhood, it always takes us to a creative space that is destined to pay dividends in our future creative efforts. The suggestions included here for finding areas of photographic potential are just some of the more practical ones; anyone who has other recommendations is very welcome to include them in the comments below.
Erin divides her time between Cascadia’s Californian southern boundary and Slovenia, traveling and photographing extensively from home bases in both locations. Make sure to bookmark Erin’s site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter and 500px.
March 30th, 2015
This week on the PhotoCascadia blog we are very excited to welcome a new blog contributor, the talented and esteemed Erin Babnik. We became acquainted with Erin’s photography a couple of years ago. At the time she was doing a lot of work in the Julianne Alps of Slovenia and the Dolomites of Italy. To say we were inspired and moved by her elegant compositions and captivating visual storytelling would be an understatement. We also enjoyed how closely she shares our own love of adventure and exploration of wilderness. In addition to being an accomplished outdoor photographer, Erin is a scholar and talented writer. She has a deep background in art history and is a master Photoshop user and educator. We are ecstatic to add Erin to the PhotoCascadia blog lineup. Her articles will add a valuable new dimension of ideas, knowledge and perspective that we can share with our audience. Erin will be a regular contributor so watch for her articles in the weeks and months to come. Our goal for this first Q&A article is to let her share some details about her background and photography interests, as well as showcase some of her wonderful imagery so you could become acquainted with her. In addition to her photographs, Erin offers instruction and leads workshops. We know you will want to check out more of her work and follow her on the web. Make sure to bookmark her site at www.erinbabnik.com. You can also follow her on Facebook and 500px.
1. You have a background in art history and archaeology. How did those two fields come together for you, and how did you evolve from there into a career as a full-time landscape photographer?
My degrees are in art history, but with a specialty in the art of ancient Greece. Working with ancient art necessitates a strong familiarity with the contexts in which ancient artworks were created, put to use, and later discovered, and it also requires a good understanding of archaeological field technique in order to make critical use of excavation reports about those discoveries. I therefore participated in archaeological expeditions in Israel for four years in order to gain experience with fieldwork. During that time, I began photographing artifacts and archaeological contexts in order to produce my own archive of photos for research and teaching. I started out by documenting the small finds and architectural remains where I was excavating and ultimately visited museums and sites throughout Europe and in the Middle East to round out my archives.
Those photographic pursuits quickly expanded into assignment work since I had a rare combination of subject knowledge and a passion for photography that produced unique results, and those projects in turn led to a lot of licensing of my photos. So before long, I was very much a ‘working’ photographer, and the idea of making photography a larger part of my professional life became increasingly appealing. My focus on landscapes grew directly out of the years that I spent photographing ancient ruins; trying to make compelling images of beautifully-sited temples and sprawling architectural foundations greatly developed my understanding of outdoor photography and piqued my interest in capturing natural ephemera. It also caused me to seek out locations where I could be free of the access limitations that are imposed at most archaeological sites. That desire to find both beauty and freedom soon had me exploring the Alps and venturing to increasingly remote and obscure locations. For a long while I clung on to my academic career because I so enjoyed teaching, but I finally decided that teaching landscape photography workshops would satisfy that passion nicely.
2. Do you feel as though your experience as an archaeologist has benefited you as a landscape photographer?
Yes, absolutely. There is a great amount of overlap between the two activities. An archaeologist must travel to remote locations, start work before sunrise, spend a large amount of time outdoors, work in challenging conditions, endure physical hardship, exercise great patience, and be willing to get very, very dirty. Anyone who has spent much time doing landscape photography will be quite familiar with those realities of the art! My time spent excavating in the Middle East toughened me up considerably and exposed me to a lot of travel situations that made me better able face the challenges of working in extreme conditions and in foreign countries. Archaeology also instilled in me an enthusiasm for discovery, which helps drive me to find new views and compositions when I’m out with my camera.
3. You obviously put a lot of care into the processing of your images. At what point did you begin to learn post-processing, and what philosophy, if any, guides you in your approach to it?
My first experiences with image editing actually preceded my interest in photography. I even taught Photoshop classes at a couple of art institutes for years before I ever even thought about using a camera for any serious purpose. It all started when my father began writing for a computer magazine and had to review new hardware and software as it came out. He also wrote books on various software programs and asked me to collaborate with him. It was my job to figure out how to use the software and to create example images that could serve as content for his tutorials. That experience landed me a job at a young age in the prepress department of a large newspaper, right when digital prepress solutions were just emerging. Adobe took an interest in the experiments of our department and sent representatives to teach us this new program called Photoshop, so we pioneered its use alongside the continuation of traditional prepress methods. Therefore, without ever having produced any serious photographs of my own, I became quite proficient at both traditional darkroom work and digital image editing. Learning Photoshop from the first version onward made it relatively easy to master the program and then stay on top of it as new features came out, so I subsequently had no problem acquiring work as a Photoshop instructor.
My philosophy about processing my own photographs did not quite grow out of those experiences, however. It was more so the years that I spent in art school to study studio art and then in graduate school to study art history that really influenced my particular approach to processing. Being exposed to so much art and to the history of it all has made me value personal expression and interpretation above most other goals. Although I do not indulge in the creation of pure fantasy scenes, I also do not think of my landscape photographs as reflections of some absolute reality. I aim to communicate my own experiences of a place, which may mean subtly altering spatial relationships, tones, or colors in order to impart a sense of perspective or a certain mood. It may mean combining different exposures to achieve a certain field of view, depth of field, or a combination of photographic effects that a camera cannot pack into a single frame on its own. These techniques come together in post-processing, but they usually require a deliberate approach at the moment of capture—so in a sense, my approach to processing a photo often begins well before I’ve taken any exposures for it.
4. What do you find most challenging and most rewarding about landscape photography?
The challenges of landscape photography are many, but chief among them is probably the necessity to think on your feet when unpredictable situations occur, which is often. I prefer to have the luxury of thinking through a composition at my leisure, refining it, and then waiting for a great display of ephemera to go with it. Those sorts of outings are wonderful, but all too often a mad dash and/or extemporaneous composition is necessary to come away with anything worthwhile when nature decides to be uncooperative. I always agonize over the decision to abandon a composition that excites me when it looks like opportunity will be knocking elsewhere, and I dislike feeling rushed when I’m composing a photograph. Then again, it can be a real thrill when an act of compositional triage forces me into a gamble that pays off in the end.
As far as rewards go, I suppose it is a toss-up between the experience of enjoying a magnificent view while photographing it and the experience of making a final photograph that communicates the essence of that experience. I enjoy both ends of the process immensely. Although I am probably happiest when I am out in nature, those moments can continue to pay dividends through photographs that successfully register something special about a particular place and time. I love that moment when I’m processing a photo and it starts to ‘speak’ to me, expressing whatever it is that I feel is worth sharing. Moreover, seeing other people deriving enjoyment from what I was able to express in a photograph is incredibly gratifying.
5. Your style of photography is quite adventurous, involving a significant amount of backpacking and wilderness camping. How do you typically go about choosing these types of destinations?
I usually choose my destinations after poring over topographical maps to identify potentially photogenic features and alignments. I find that I can get the basic sense for an area most quickly by looking at maps of it. Once I find an area that looks promising on paper, I then explore it ‘virtually’ using satellite imagery and Google Earth, and I look for snapshots that might provide more detailed information about a location or about terrain at an elevation that I’m targeting. Working in this manner usually means that I’m setting myself up for some surprises, and they don’t always work out in my favor. One time I planned a backpacking trip to photograph a glacial tarn that ceased to exist the year that I went to find it. It wasn’t until I had driven seven hours and hiked up nearly four thousand feet of steep terrain that I learned that there was no tarn because the glacier had finally become too small to produce enough runoff to fill the basin below it with water.
I also end up in a lot of interesting places simply because I enjoy the company of likeminded photographers who share my interests in exploring obscure locations. For years I resisted shooting with other people because I wanted to minimize distractions and complications, but lately I have swung the other direction. I have been lucky to make friends with some very intrepid photographers who have introduced me to locations that they have researched. Sharing the experience of exploration and discovery with inspiring photographers is possibly the greatest fun that I have ever known, and doing so has expanded my wanderings to areas that I may never have found by following my own nose.
6. How would you describe the qualities that are typical of your work?
The one thread that probably runs through most of what I produce is an interest in seldom seen locations and compositions. I think it’s my love of discovery and of solving puzzles that drives me to experiment with new locations and vantage points. While I marvel at familiar scenes as much as anyone else, I always have this urge to find out what lies beyond them. As far as basic aesthetics go, I tend to gravitate towards scenes that provide a strong sense of visual hierarchy and of timing. Although I enjoy images that do a compelling job of featuring all-over patterning or of eschewing temporal specificity, I don’t tend to produce them myself. Counterbalance, atmospheric effects, and dynamism all feature quite regularly in my images, and despite having a great amount of respect for black-and-white photography, I prefer to work in color.
7. When you are not photographing or processing images, what do you like to do?
I like to stay active as much as possible, so I do a lot of running and enthusiastically seize opportunities to go swimming when they arise. I really do enjoy the whole range of outdoor activities associated with photography, including hiking and camping, and I sometimes like to indulge in them without any photographic agenda governing my time. In addition to keeping my body active, I like to exercise my mind as well, so I regularly get out to museums and galleries, and I love to read philosophical musings about photography wherever I can find them. Judging photography competitions also provides me with an outlet for exercising my eyes and mind in ways that producing photographs cannot, so I accept a number of invitations to commentate and judge at competitions around the Bay Area each year.
8. What photographic projects do you have planned for the future?
At the moment I have a workshop in the Dolomites with co-leader Enrico Fossati scheduled for July 5–11 and several private workshops planned in the summer and Fall. I also have been invited to write a feature article for a magazine to recount my adventures on a month-long trip through the southwest that I recently completed. Those projects and my usual photography travels will keep me quite busy, but I hope to make plenty of time this year to finish an e-Book on photographic expression that I have been plugging away at for years now.
March 23rd, 2015
As our newsletter subscribers might know over the last last year we have taken turns pointing the lens on each of us to provide more insight to us personally. Since these were spread out among a half dozen newsletters we thought it would be good to post a recap that includes all of them. Besides we were not always good on following up to mention the myth found from a handful of truths of for the prior newsletter. Now we are rectifying that with all of them here.
If you did not receive the newsletter here is a speedy recap what we did. We published a listing of five things about one PC team member in a newsletter. One of the five is a myth, simply made up. four are true. The goal was to allow newsletter subscribers to guess which is the false one. If a person did respond correctly they would go in a drawing with others that guessed the same for a free 8×12 print of their choice. I don’t have a list of who all won yet I know some were guessed correctly by one or more viewers yet not that was not the case for all team members. Some are easier than others.
Without further rambling here they are for reading pleasure with a photo of each team member in their element… outdoors. Answers are separate at the bottom of the post for those that would like to take a stab at guessing.
- Failed the only photography course he ever took.
- Made ski movies when he was younger.
- Traveled around the world as a DJ.
- He likes to eat vegetables and seafood.
- Just out of high school bought a Porsche.
- Has performed onstage with Ray Charles, Natalie Cole, Ben Folds, Brandi Carlile, and Peter Cetera.
- One of his cars is a red 1988 VW Cabriolet.
- Has never used a traditional film darkroom
- Was a child actor and in a commercial for Burger King.
- He is not afraid of bees, but is of spiders.
- He reads 25-50 books per year on average.
- He grew up in the redwoods of northern California, but has never been back to photograph.
- In addition to photography, he enjoys surfing, mountain biking, snowboarding, and backcountry exploration.
- Has never used a traditional film darkroom.
- Owned cameras made by the following manufacturers: Sony, Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Apple, and GoPro.
- Did wedding and portrait photography full time for over a year before deciding to move back to landscape photography.
- Almost got blown off a mountain summit with his wife. The tent was sideways and he could not see where he was when he woke up. He ripped open a mesh window to get out.
- Has traveled to all the National Parks in the states of Oregon and Washington.
- First backpack experience felt a big adventure he embarked on. He now takes his young kids to the same location. It’s only 2 miles and 500 ft of elevation gain.
- Grew up at the mouth of the Columbia River Gorge playing in a creek on his property catching crawdads and hiking through the woods.
- He owned a music distribution company.
- He’s an avid guitar player.
- He’s held two state swimming records.
- He walked across the Yukon and NW Territories.
- He played in baseball’s Babe Ruth World Series.
- Pole vaulted in China.
- Reached the summit of Mt. McKinley on two separate expeditions.
- Lost a $5 bet with Galen Rowell when Galen successfully ran cross country at high altitude in time to capture his famous Rainbow Over the Potala Palace image in Tibet.
- Played in a 1990s bagpipe marching band, kilt and all.
- Partied with Woody Harrelson and his posse at a U2 concert.
Answers – the following are not true.
Kevin #4 – He likes to eat vegetables and seafood. Kevin does not like either of them. I know first hand from traveling with him.
Chip #5 – He is not afraid of bees, but is of spiders. Chip does not like bee’s at all but doesn’t mind spiders.
Zack #5 – Has never used a traditional film darkroom. Although he became an expert in Photoshop early in the DLSR age Zack has spent time in the darkroom.
Adrian #3 – Has traveled to all the National Parks in the states of Oregon and Washington. He has not been to the North Cascades NP yet.
David #2 – He’s an avid guitar player. David does not play the guitar.
Sean #3 – Lost a $5 bet with Galen Rowell when Galen successfully ran cross country at high altitude in time to capture his famous Rainbow Over the Potala Palace image in Tibet. He wishes he did but it’s not true.
March 16th, 2015
Thrills, chills, and a bit of spilled milk, but I attended the 19th Annual NANPA (North American Nature Photography Association) summit in San Diego to be inspired, make connections, meet old friends, and greet new ones. I was not disappointed. This year’s keynote speakers listed a number of heavy hitters from Nevada Wier to Dewitt Jones to Frans Lanting. Fighting L.A. traffic, I arrived late to the summit but caught a keynote address by NANPA’s 2015 Outstanding Photographer of the Year–Steve Winter. The work and dedication he put in to photographing snow leopards and other big cats was mind-boggling and impressive; and his images were fabulous.
The next day Nevada Wier took the stage to show images and recollect stories from her many travels to remote and distant lands. Her love of varied cultures and its peoples shows through her work. Backpacking into isolated valleys rarely visited by anyone, she has photographed untouched clans for months on end. Her National Geographic assignment to raft the Blue Nile in Ethiopia and photograph the cultures along the river consisted of a remarkable set of images. She also presented a number of her new infra-red cultural photographs which showed cultures in a new light.
Before and after the keynote addresses there were breakout sessions that ran the gamut from processing to copyright protection. You could attend photo walks or field trips before the first keynote address, and get a portfolio review. And of course no summit is complete without its exhibitor trade show, which also had a demonstration area.
It’s always great to head south for warm weather in February, so next year plan on attending the 20th annual NANPA Summit in Jacksonville, Florida.