Photo Cascadia Blog
October 9th, 2015
PhotoCascadia is proud to announce the addition of Erin Babnik as a new full time member of the team! If you didn’t previously know Erin’s photography then hopefully you were introduced to her when she began contributing to the PhotoCascadia blog back in March of this year. Erin has the distinct honor of being the first and only person to be asked to join PhotoCascadia since the six original members formed the group several year ago.
Since the beginning, PhotoCascadia’s mission has been to explore areas of natural beauty, encourage appreciation and conservation of wild places and offer inspiration by sharing our images, our stories, and our knowledge with other photographers who share our passion. We were quite content with the group and were not looking for a new member.
However, over the past several months it became clear that Erin was too good a fit not to be a member. She is smart, humble, kind, energetic and generous. Her photos are of the highest quality and artistry and were already admired by the group before we knew who she was. In addition to being a talented photographer she is an educated art historian, an excellent writer and has great energy, passion and vision. Erin’s love of nature, adventure, exploration and sharing her knowledge aligns directly with the PhotoCascadia mission. During the time she has been contributing articles to the PhotoCascadia blog she has engaged, inspired and connected with our readers in a very positive way. Finally, hailing from northern California, she lives on the southern boundary of the Cascadia region so she knows, explores and photographs the area intimately.
Please join us in giving Erin a very warm welcome and look forward to seeing lots more of her in the future!
October 5th, 2015
Ode to the Silhouette
By David Cobb
Silhouette: The dark shape and outline of someone or something visible against a lighter background, especially in dim light.
There was a time in photography when the silhouette was used more because it had to be. There wasn’t much dynamic range for a camera to work with so your options were limited. When photographing a strongly backlit subject without lighting or flash, you either chose to show detail of the subject and over-exposed the sky or you chose to expose for the sky and lose the detail of the subject to create a silhouette. The latter option was often chosen.
Today the silhouette isn’t in vogue. It’s fallen out of favor to the technology of high dynamic range which allows us to display as much detail as possible, but the silhouette is still a viable option. The silhouette creates a layer and a useful pattern simplifying form against a beautiful sunrise or sunset to make a striking graphic image. It generates mystery, drama, mood, and can help make an image more emotive. As you look for your subject, search for an uncluttered image stripped of detail and depth. (It often works best if it fills the frame in an interesting way or balances against a dramatic sky.) Try to keep your elements separate or at least the outlines defined in some way; if there is too much overlap the composition becomes confusing. Also focus your lens on the subject that is silhouetted. This is the part of the image you want to be the sharpest.
Next time you’re in a situation of choosing between showing detail or going with a silhouette, expose for the sky and go for simplicity. Leave part of the image up to the viewer’s imagination and choose the silhouette.
October 2nd, 2015
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of my all time favorite landscape photographers, Marc Adamus. Marc is an award-winning landscape photographer based in Corvallis, Oregon, whose images have been featured in countless publications, including Outside and National Geographic Adventure.
Tell me about your life pre-photography. How did you first get into photography? What did you think you would be when you grew up? I heard you worked as a chef at one point, is this correct?
When I was in my teens and early twenties my entire life revolved around the next outdoor adventure, particularly in remote places, winter, and in the mountains. I got into photography seriously in 2001, after carrying a camera with me on mountain and wilderness trips for several years, just to document my adventures. My greatest influence at the time was the late Galen Rowell; a world famous climber/photographer, whose work inspired me to dive into the art of photography. I did have a job as a chef in a past life and did the culinary arts thing for awhile, hoping I’d be able to move to whatever beautiful places I wanted and find a job. That job experience was mixed with many others that ranged from a camera store, an outdoor store and wildland firefighting, all so I could continue to plan and finance my next escape to the wilds somewhere.
If you are comfortable in saying, how many kids do you have? As a new dad myself, I am really experiencing the challenges of balancing family and photography. Do you ever bring your family on photography trips?What has your experience been like, and what advice would you give to someone like me?
My son, named Galen, came along in 2009 four years after I had met my wife, Anni. We have taken dozens of trips around the country and the world together and are off to New Zealand soon for 3 weeks. Despite all the family adventures, I keep photography trips totally separate, as they consume about 200 days out of my year. The camera doesn’t come out during my treasured family time, although recently my son has shown interest in helping me ‘scout’ for trips, hiking and flying around in helicopters in Alaska and such, and is keen towards escaping outdoors. For a dad who’s away a lot on his own shoots, I could have probably picked a worse profession. I am doing what I love, and I think of all of our time together as being high quality time. I am able to provide well for them so they can live their lives to the fullest, and we keep in touch always.
Tell me about your most exciting project this past year and what you are most excited about coming up in the next year.
In three days, I leave to spend 3 weeks backpacking in the Kharta Valley in the Tibetan Himalaya near mount Everest, a place few Westerners ever get to see. I also have major expeditions planned to Greenland, Alaska and a different part of Tibet in coming years.
Do you ever feel burnt out and if so, how do you re-inspire yourself?
I keep it moving all the time so I rarely feel burned out. The world is an enormous place. There are always new adventures, new challenges. To feel like it has ‘all been done’ is silly and just shows a lack of imagination and desire. The only time I feel burnt out would be if I was in a place filled with other photographers, which is never a problem for me.
What are your top 5 personal favorite images?
A ‘personal favorite’ image is hard to pick, and is so often for reasons that go beyond what meets the eye, but these are some I am very fond of. Feel free to use these with the article.
More of Marc’s work can be seen on his website.
September 29th, 2015
I recently got the chance to co-host a Photo Walk in Vancouver, BC, Canada with 500px. We also had the luck to have Fuji as a sponsor for the event and to have a representative from Fuji join us. About 80 people participated in the Photo Walk. There were lots of Fuji giveaways and everybody walked away with some goodies including a lucky participant that won an underwater camera.
For those that were wondering what exactly a Photo Walk is. Here is the short answer; it’s an organized photo event that brings photographers together from all walks of life with a common interest in taking pictures.
There are many benefits to joining a Photo Walk in your local area. It gets photographers together with like-minded goals. It introduces you to the events and organizations that are in your area that have to do with photography. Also, it gives you the chance to meet all kinds of people with diverse backgrounds that, when together, share ideas and thoughts. The Photo Walks often take place in an area of the city that really highlight the area’s beauty. It’s a great way to see your city as well learn new things.
For this Photo Walk I chose the Vancouver Seawall in Stanley Park as the place to meet the group of photographers and really showcase Vancouver’s stunning city skyline views. Vancouver is well known around the world for its tall buildings and gorgeous harbor views of the city. The Vancouver Seawall is just a short walk from the main downtown area, yet allows one to feel like you are far enough away from the city to really enjoy it without the crowds.
The group started at the historic Vancouver Rowing Club and worked its way around the seawall shooting all different perspectives of the city skyline. Right away we encountered a great spot for photographing fall colors. Some people got adventurous and laid on the grass and took turns photographing the fall leaves. The photo below is an example.
The shooting of the fall colors gave the group a great chance talk about the potential of an important concept in nature photography called High Dynamic Range or HDR. High Dynamic Photography is the process of taking multiple exposures of the same scene with different exposures and combining them into one exposure. The final exposure is made up of all the exposures and thus has a wider dynamic range of exposure in a single image. Some had done it before and others were learning about it for the first time. People also shared some of their tricks when shooting, as for example, when shooting into the sun at an aperture of f/22 to make a sun star. After finishing shooting the fall colors and trees along the seawall the group moved on to shoot the inner harbor and city skyline. Everyone was eager to learn all about the different ways to shoot the city as well as learn about their camera settings to take advantage of the light. We choose a time to photograph near sunset to show of the late light of twilight on the cityscape as shown in the examples below.
We were also fortunate enough to get a near full moon that gave the group more opportunities to shoot late into the night. The group made its way along the seawall noting some of the local wildlife such as the harbor seals. People also took time to talk about photo equipment and what cameras and lenses to use and in what situations to use them. With a wide diversity of cameras and tripods the group tried out several different pieces of equipment including some newer lenses by Fuji. The Vancouver Seawall is also in my opinion one of the best places to shoot panoramas of the city with reflections. So the group got together and did some panoramas that worked out great with the light and the location. The scenes below show examples of panoramas.
The sun began to set in the west and the last of the day’s light hit the Vancouver landscape city skyline. This gave the group an opportunity to shoot a group photo of some of the participants, which people can share. We managed to all squeeze close enough with the backdrop of Vancouver.
Eventually we made our way back to the start of the Photo Walk continuing to photograph the city at night with all its glorious reflections in the water. The group even found a way to shoot at night without a tripod by placing the camera on the seawall ledge, which made for a great impromptu tripod.
During the few hours together we got to know each other and made new friends. We also learnt lots of new things about Vancouver and photography.
The night ended with people exchanging contact information and well as the promise to post their images on their Facebook page.
Co-hosting the event with 500px gave me a great opportunity to learn some new things as well as meet a great bunch of new people. It was amazing to see how many people showed up from different experiences yet shared a common goal of taking great photos. So thank you everyone who showed up and hope to see everyone again in the near future. And thanks to our sponsor, Fuji and 500px for co-hosting the event.
September 18th, 2015
Photoshop is my most powerful and flexible tool for image developing, and Luminosity Masks are a key component to that. Masks in Photoshop are used to control where and to what degree an adjustment will be revealed. Masks generally come in two varieties; hard edged and feathered. Hard edged masks are precise but have obvious and visible boundaries. Feathered masks blend adjustments into an image gradually, but are not precise and bleed into adjoining areas and can cause light or dark halos. With Luminosity Masks we get the best of both worlds; the precision of a hard edged mask combined with the gradual blending of a feathered mask.
Standard luminosity masks are global, or what I sometimes refer to as “entire image” masks. That is, while they control where and to what degree adjustments are applied, they still feather throughout the entire image. Sometimes this is just what is needed, but other times it is helpful to be able to customize and localize luminosity masks to target one specific area of an image.
In this short video tutorial I demonstrate one method of customizing a luminosity mask called painting a mask. If you use Luminosity Masks in your Photoshop work, I think you will find it useful.
This video is a portion of one of the chapters from the soon to be released 2nd Edition of my Complete Guide to Luminosity Masks tutorial series. While the general concepts of Luminosity Masks have not changed, this is a needed update. The new edition features some new new ideas, tips and techniques and uses Photoshop CC and version 4 of the TKActions panel. I know some folks have been looking forward to this update so I spent a good portion of the summer working on them. The goal was to complete them before my fall photography adventures kicked off this Month. I just pulled it off, completing the video editing phase on Wednesday evening. Thursday morning at 4 AM I left for Idaho and Canada, so while the videos are complete, they won’t be available until I’m back in the office on October 1. Stay tuned and I’ll keep you posted.
September 15th, 2015
by Zack Schnepf
Having a workflow, both in the field and for post processing is extremely helpful just as having a road map if you get lost is extremely helpful. That’s what a good workflow is for me, a road map. If I’m struggling to find a good composition, I fall back on my workflow to help get back on track and give me ideas. In this article I’ll walk you through the different phases of my personal workflow in the field.
Evaluation and scouting phase: My first tip for composing in the field is to walk the scene first and fully evaluate the options. I like to do this well before the light is at it’s peak so I have enough time to properly take stock of my options. This may sound obvious, but this is something I see workshops participants often overlook. Anytime I visit a new location I leave my camera in my pack and I walk the scene extensively. I do this for several reasons. I want to evaluate the scene and see what elements are attracting me and get a good idea of my compositional options. Once I take stock of the scene I can move on to the next steps in my composition workflow.
Arrangement phase: The second step in my field workflow is to put the elements together. Once you have taken stock of the scene you can start to think about arranging the elements in a visually compelling way. This is easier said than done, but when I follow these steps in the field it’s much easier to come up with composition ideas. Sometimes I’ll focus on the element in the scene that attracted me the most and try to come up with a composition using the other elements as a supporting cast. For example, in this image from Crater Lake there are a lot of compelling elements to choose from: Wizard Island, the lake, the light itself, and the tree are all strong compositional elements. I chose to make the tree the star of the show and let the other elements be supporting elements. I could have gone a different direction and focused more on the lake and the sky and the resulting image would have been very different. I had several composition ideas in mind and I tried more than one, this happened to be the one I liked best. That leads me to my next tip.
Experiment phase: Try more than one composition idea and compare them. During the arrangement phase I try to come up with more than one composition idea. I also like to try them out before the light is at it’s peak. This allows me to evaluate the results on my camera LCD, or my laptop and decide which I want to focus on during peak light. If the locations are close enough together, sometimes I can get a shot from more than one. Once I’ve experimented with my options it’s time to prioritize composition ideas and come up with a plan for peak light.
Planning Phase: Before the light is at it’s peak I like to have a tentative plan in place to mentally prepare for capture phase. I try to pre visualize my capture phase before it happens. This helps me anticipate any issues that might come up during capture phase. This includes anticipating what the weather might do. I also like to have a back plan, or two to help maximize my chance of success. This probably sounds like a lot of work and it is, but sometimes you only get one chance at really good conditions at a location. I like to increase my odds of capturing a good image.
Capture phase: This is it, the moment we’ve been waiting for. This is when we execute our plan and try to realize the pre-visualized ideas. Sometimes, everything goes to plan and I’m able to get exactly what I had pre-visualized in my head. Other times, things don’t line up quite right, or one of my predictions is wrong and I have to change my plans. Even the best laid plans fail, so be prepared to wing it if you have to. Most of the time, one of my plans does work out and I’m able to capture a good image. Having several options has saved me so many times. I can’t count how many times I’ve changed to a backup plan at the last minute based on how everything lined up.
Re-evaluating the scene is extremely important during capture phase. If you see things aren’t lining up well for plan “A”, but plan “B” is looking more promising then you can quickly transition to plan “B”. A perfect example of this happened last fall on my trip to Colorado with Sean Bagshaw. We had scouted the area extensively earlier that day and came up with several contingency plans for capture phase. Plan “A” was to shoot away from the setting sun toward the mountains using some nice looking aspen trees as foreground. The problem was, there was a storm moving in that was blocking the light from getting to our scene. We quickly evaluated the scene and saw that another area we had scouted was shaping up really nicely, so we instantly abandoned plan “A”, jumped in the car and headed to the other location. We arrived just in time to capture one of my favorite images of the whole trip. If we hadn’t scouted so well, or had several back up plans we would have gotten skunked, but because we were so well prepared we were able to capture something really special.
In the next part of this series I’ll discuss different types of compositions I like and look for in the field.
September 4th, 2015
The landscape photographers who I most admire all seem to have a certain range of qualities in common, habits and characteristics that surely play a large role in enabling these photographers to produce compelling images on a regular basis. What follows is my attempt to identify what may be the seven most essential of those qualities and to explain why I think that they are important virtues for any landscape photographer to nurture. These virtues are Respect, Curiosity, Flexibility, Patience, Speed, Integrity, and Courage.
With nature as our subject, landscape photographers have a special duty to respect it. Common sense dictates that we should protect whatever is essential to our own goals, but respecting nature goes beyond conservation and advocacy, as important as they are. Developing a relationship with nature is like developing one with a person; the more effort that you make to get to know a person, the better able you are to empathize with that person and to deepen your bonds with each other. Respecting nature means viewing it as a partner rather than as a trophy or a realm to be conquered, and achieving this level of respect allows us to see and to understand nature in ways that not only lead to great personal experiences but ultimately benefit the creative process as well.
The curious photographer will venture farther, look more closely, and experiment more readily. Curiosity is the quality that causes us to find out how a location might appear from a different vantage point, during a different time of day, or in a different season. It is the quality that makes us find the smaller details of nature that can easily be overlooked. When we are out in the field or in the development process, curiosity will lead us to try different techniques and to ponder our stylistic decisions. Being intrigued by our surroundings and our own ideas is what leads to exploration, discovery, experimentation, and creative growth.
Nature is notoriously capricious, having change as its only constant. If you are willing to adjust to conditions and make the most of whatever nature gives you, then the world is your oyster. Being too fixated on a specific outcome can cause us to miss opportunities, so while it is extremely helpful to pre-visualize the potential of a location and a set of conditions, we should also be prepared to adapt or even abandon those ideas as other opportunities present themselves.
A photographer friend of mine once shared this dialogue that he had with a passing hiker while he was standing behind his tripod one day.
Hiker: “It looks like you’re waiting for something to happen.”
Photographer: “I am.”
Hiker: “Well, what, then?”
Photographer: “I don’t know. It hasn’t happened yet.”
Sometimes simply watching and waiting allows opportunities and ideas to come together in fruitful ways. It can be very rewarding to remain in one place for a while and see what surprises fast-moving weather might bring, what changes may take place between sets of waves, or how a forest might transform as mist or light shift around in it. While the temptation may be great to run around shooting as many compositions as possible, that approach often results in a lot of images that are missing something—missing that special confluence of time and place that results from letting the magic come to you and being ready for it when it does.
On the other side of the coin from patience is speed, the ability to respond quickly to opportunities and to think on your feet. After waiting patiently for a marvel of nature, you may find it finally arriving rather suddenly and, all too often, in a situation that requires a mad dash, a quick lens change, a host of revisions to camera settings, or all of the above. Being able to respond quickly to ephemera can often make the difference between a great shot and a great memory.
Simply put, as creative photographers, it is important that we remain true to our own art. There comes a time after we reach a certain stage of creative development that we have the choice to do what most interests us, or else to do what we think will most interest other people. Naturally, any photographer who shares or shows their photographs cares about how they will be received, otherwise they would keep them to themselves, but caring about those opinions needn’t mean catering to them.
Landscape photographers often find themselves in wilderness areas, in foreign lands, in extreme weather, on the edges of cliffs, close to pounding surf, or even in all of these situations at once. The dangers of working outdoors are many, making it necessary to exercise caution and good sense, and when those requirements are met, to find the courage to proceed. Perhaps even more courage may be necessary for what follows, however. It can require great bravery to make creative decisions that are risky, to experiment with new ideas and locations, and to release the results to the world at large.
I could easily extend this list to include many more virtues, but these seven strike me as the ones that form a core set that many inspirational landscape photographers seem to have in common. What virtues would you add to this list? If any come to mind, you are very welcome to share 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.
August 17th, 2015
By David Cobb
I like variety. When I shoot a variety of images it keeps me on my toes, keeps things fresh, and lets me be creative. If I only photographed landscapes I’d be bored. By changing things up and photographing not just landscapes, but also events, macro, details, people, wildlife, buildings, interiors, food, and in black-and-white I don’t get tired of photographing any one thing. Some might say by doing many things you never get good at one of them. I disagree. I think in photography improving one facet of your camerawork can only help another facet; it’s kind of like photographic cross-training. My detail images help my compositional skills as I photograph landscapes. By photographing small flowers with my macro lens, it’s not too much of a stretch to photograph food. Photographing people lets me be more creative and interact with my subject, (plus putting a person in a scene increases sales potential in an over-saturated landscape market). If I photograph an event, it makes me think quicker on my feet and that helps me set up and get the shot faster when working my landscapes and landscape photography—and lets me apply those skills to my macro and detail images.
Josef Koudelka is one of my photographic heroes, and he stated that he was first and foremost a photographer. Koudelka photographed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but he wasn’t a photo journalist; he photographed and travelled with gypsies for years, but he wasn’t a portrait or street photographer; he spent years photographing Roman ruins, but he wasn’t a historical photographer; the time spent photographing industrial waste and the workings of man didn’t make him an environmental photographer–he was simply just a photographer who resisted any codes or labels. And he succeeded in all areas.
I’m posting some photos I’ve shot over the past few months, as an example of the variety of images I’ve taken in my photographic cross-training.
August 4th, 2015
by Zack Schnepf
Recently, on the Photo Cascadia blog; Erin Babnik posted a really excellent article about compositional patterns to look for in nature, I thought it was one of the best articles on the PC blog in a while. Here is a link to her article: http://www.photocascadia.com/blog/five-compositional-patterns-worth-finding-in-nature/#.VWzBB2CRl0c
I wanted to continue with the theme of composition. In part one I’ll talk about how I simplify my field technique to allow me to focus on composition in the field. In part two I’ll talk about what I look for in the field to build strong compositions, and the tips and tricks I use to help me build compelling compositions in nature. Composition is the most challenging part of photography for me, it’s also one of the most important aspects of a compelling image. It’s so easy to get distracted in the field and get bogged down in settings. Organizing a nature scene into a compelling composition is always a struggle and takes a tremendous amount of focus and it’s made much harder if you are trying to juggle ten things at once. To help me focus on composition, I try to remove distractions and simplify other aspects of working in the field. There are several tips and tricks I use to help simplify my workflow and allow me to focus more on composition.
Master the technical functions of your camera. This is the first step to being able to truly focus on composition in the field. This goes for your lenses, tripod and other equipment as well. When you can operate your equipment without having to think much, you can start to focus on composition. This takes some commitment and you have to be really consistent, otherwise you forget how some functions work and have to spend time in the field trying to figure it out all over again. This is obviously more for someone who really wants to take their photography to the next level and is willing to put in the time and effort, but once you have mastered the technical side of photography you are free to focus on the artistic side.
Shoot using the manual settings on your camera. This seems counter intuitive for many people and it is until you’ve gotten comfortable shooting manually. For me, when I shoot manual it simplifies my field workflow and gives me much greater control. It also allows me to use the following tricks to keep things simple in the field.
Shoot manual focus and use the focus markings on your lenses. This takes some practice, but once you master this technique it takes aperture out of the equation in a lot situations. On the top of most high end lenses is a set of focus markings that gives you approximate distances for focus. For landscape photography I typically like to have everything in focus, unless I have a specific reason to use selective focus. This actually makes it really easy to generalize focus and take it out of the equation. For instance, my general rule of thumb for a typical scenic landscape shot using a wide angle lens without a close foreground is f/13-f/18. In this situation I can keep things very simple, set my aperture to f/16 and set my focus meter to the inside of the infinity line. If I have a subject that is closer to the camera and I want everything in focus I generally set my aperture to f/22 and set the focus to the general distance of the foreground element using the focus meter on the lens. This is very effective until you have a subject that is 3 feet or closer to you. At this point you will have to abandon this technique and start problem solving, either using multiple focal point blending, or another technique. On my current camera system the Sony A7r, the Sony lenses don’t have this on the top of the lens. Instead there is a digital read out on the LCD that shows up when I try to manually focus a lens. I still use the digital version to help approximate focus distance.
Shoot raw and don’t worry about white balance. This is a really easy one. If you’re shooting in the RAW format you don’t have worry about white balance, save that decision for when you are working in post production. This is just one less thing to have to have to think about in the field.
All of these techniques help remove small distractions in the field, leaving you with less things to mentally juggle. This allows my mind to focus on the artistic side of photography. In part two of this series, I’ll talk about my own artistic techniques I use in the field and how I use them to build compelling images.
July 13th, 2015
By Erin Babnik
When a photograph depicts a person, it is likely to suggest storylines in a fairly straightforward manner. A single or predominant person appearing within a scene will read easily as the story’s protagonist, and details in the image will help to establish strands of the narrative. Even photographs that contain only hints of human activity may express stories with relative clarity; the inclusion of a vehicle, a tent, or a personal belonging of any sort can provide a host of clues for surmising the circumstances of a scene, the events that may have preceded them, and the events that are likely to follow. But what about photographs that present no indications of human presence or even any animals in relatable scenarios? How do they tell stories?
Whereas images with figures in them have the potential to narrate quite literally, those that display natural features exclusively tend to require more interpretation, a difference not unlike that between prose and poetry. Landscape photographs generally tell their stories with relative subtlety, ambiguity, open-endedness, and mystery, but they are nonetheless capable of narration. If we find nothing meaningful in a compelling landscape photograph, it is only because we haven’t considered the implications of what makes it hold our attention. As I hope to demonstrate with a single photograph, landscape images can communicate stories on at least three different levels: the natural, the personal, and the metaphorical.
The photograph that I have chosen to use as an example shows a scene from the Mojave Desert, just after a rainstorm. The view presents a playa etched with wide mud cracks, lying beneath a dark, cloud-filled sky. Arcing across the darkness, a full rainbow springs from a mountain ridge at the left to open desert at the right. In the foreground, two especially wide cracks in the playa dominate the rain-splattered earth, each curving inward from either side of the frame and echoing the form of the rainbow above them. This simple description identifies the essential features of the photograph, but it omits any attempt at explanation or interpretation. Reducing a photo to its descriptive attributes misses out those qualities that make landscape photographs special as representatives of an art form that combines ‘found’ views with personal experiences and expression. Even though it may happen subconsciously, ideas about a landscape photograph will eventually come forward for the interested viewer, affecting the connection that the viewer will have with it. The following three categories explore some of the ways in which a photograph may convey those ideas and thereby suggest stories.
THE NATURAL LEVEL
Any nature photograph tells a story of creation, one about the natural processes that were at work in the formation of the geological features depicted. In the case of the desert playa, the bowl-shaped depression with its pattern of cracks sprawling across the surface evince the evaporation of a shallow lake that once existed in this location. What was originally muddy sediment of the lake’s bed has since contracted and cracked through the process of desiccation after the last of the water evaporated. The rainbow, as an indicator of both the sun and the rain, demonstrates the role that weather plays in affecting the topography of the area: rain created the lake, and then the sun caused it to vanish. These events are distinct chapters in a story that is perpetually in progress.
THE PERSONAL LEVEL
While a photograph may omit people within its frame, one person is always implied by its existence: the photographer. Behind every landscape image is a story of its making, even if that story never accompanies the image in any written form. Looking at the photograph of the desert scene, a viewer could guess much about the experience of the photographer at that moment: this person traveled to a remote area, hiked to a dried lakebed, probably got a bit wet from the rain, and then was treated to the spectacle of a full rainbow. Anyone who has visited a similar area or has witnessed similar conditions will be able to project additional details into the story based on personal experience, while others may embellish the narrative with details derived purely from a vivid imagination. The story could be envisioned as one of great adventure, of personal struggle, or of simple pleasures, but regardless of how well any of these ideas may match with the actual circumstances of the photograph’s creation, they still form part of its story for the viewer who imagines them. In this regard, the viewer mentally occupies the space of the photographer, and the two become elided as that implied individual who appears nowhere in the picture and yet serves as its protagonist.
THE METAPHORICAL LEVEL
The symbolic power of natural features allows them to suggest stories of a more timeless and universal quality. While symbolism can be very culturally relevant, the realities of nature provide experiences that people across the globe tend to share and to understand similarly. For example, a rainbow may have different spiritual or political connotations in different cultures, but most people will understand it as a phenomenon that occurs when a storm breaks and the sun begins to shine, so it is likely to register as something that marks the end of a difficult experience and as a herald of positive change. At the very least, a rainbow represents something highly ephemeral, a marvel that lasts a short while and is always fresh and new. In the photograph from the Mojave Desert, the rainbow appears in alignment with much older features, the cracks in the playa surface that resemble the rainbow’s form. For the viewer willing to ponder it, this coincidence may suggest a story of rebirth or renewal: the fractured past versus a bright future. Alternatively, it could suggest a happy symbiosis between old and young, an encapsulation of the cycle of life, or an epiphany revealing a connection between disparate ideas. Many more possibilities for interpretation exist, and any one of them may resonate without the need to go through any amount of deliberate analysis—sometimes we simply know that a photo is ‘speaking’ to us, without being fully conscious of what it’s saying.
Thinking about photographs as bearers of meaning may not be necessary for the creation or the enjoyment of them, but it can be very worthwhile in either case. For the photographer, giving some thought to the stories that a location may suggest can help with the creative process, both in the field and during image development. Interpretation can also help with the process of self-curation, since those images that seem to narrate most clearly are often the ones that hold the greatest visual interest. For the viewer, taking a moment to consider a photograph’s possible narratives will slow down the viewing process, allowing greater appreciation of what an image has to offer, which is infinitely more rewarding than having knee-jerk reactions while consuming images in rapid succession.
If you enjoyed reading about the possible implications of my desert photograph, you may be interested to hear the actual story of its making. I will share my experience of that morning in a post to my Facebook page on August 3, so I encourage you to follow me there and to look out for that post. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts on this topic 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.