Photo Cascadia Blog
Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category
Anyone who develops an intense passion for landscape photography is likely to ponder its potential as a career choice. These thoughts may pass quickly for people who have ample time and money to satisfy their photography cravings. Others will feel a nagging desire to make an expensive, time-consuming hobby pay for itself and will at least dabble in options for producing some side income from it. For a smaller percentage of enthusiasts, however, photographing nature develops into something much deeper than a part-time interest; it becomes a calling, a lifestyle, and a basis for self-identity. A person in the latter situation is likely to give some serious consideration to the idea of making landscape photography their full-time profession. If the siren song of life as a landscape photographer is luring you into deeper waters, then the following realities of the profession may help you to decide whether or not to heed the call.
Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll
As often as people jokingly refer to prominent landscape photographers as “rock stars”, the reality is rather sobering. Most professional landscape photographers are self-employed, and like proprietors of any other small businesses, we tend to devote most of our time to our work. Having a strong work ethic and a high tolerance for austerity are crucial to building and sustaining a business, especially in the early years.
Of course it helps that some of this work is a labor of love, but much of it is quite mundane. Depending on the business model that you follow, tedious paperwork may be necessary for insurance purposes, for permits, for exhibition space, for all sorts of contracts, or for certifications, just to name a few of the more common necessities. In the United States, having to establish your business as an LLC or S-Corp means an extra level of complication at tax time each year, and the annual bookkeeping is no party either. Besides the demands of business compliance, a whole plethora of routine tasks requires attention on a regular basis. Email correspondence is particularly never-ending. I have heard more than a few professional landscape photographers refer to themselves as “professional emailers” because keeping up with email and various types of electronic messages is such an ongoing commitment. Similarly, the maintenance of social media accounts can be a career in itself, and website development and maintenance is another area of activity that can easily consume many precious hours.
And what happens after you do get to enjoy some quality time in the field? The actual photography also creates more work down the line. Developing, cataloguing, backing up files, and keywording all have the potential to draw you into a black hole of busy work. Being out in the field regularly also means using your camera gear more often, and heavy professional use tends to necessitate frequent maintenance of that gear and of the peripheral equipment and vehicles associated with outdoor activities.
Indeed, the life of a professional landscape photographer is not nearly as glamorous as the most obvious features of the occupation might suggest. A large array of responsibilities are involved that can cause the profession to feel a lot like a traditional desk job at times. Nonetheless, the actual photography is enjoyable enough to make it all worthwhile for the right kind of person. It is an incredible feeling to stand behind a tripod in a majestic location and to have the thought occur that “This is my job!”
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Travel is another facet of the career that many aspiring professionals may underestimate and misunderstand. A rare subset of full-time landscape photographers are able to restrict their activities to local areas, but most spend a significant amount of time traveling far and wide. My own travels take me away from home for about 300 days each year, an amount that is probably well above average but that is not highly unusual. Contrary to common assumptions, this travel is not entirely dedicated to creating new photographs for my portfolio. I travel to teach, to give talks, to meet with partners, sponsors, or other business owners, and to attend conferences and expos, among other purposes. Purely personal travel aimed at pursuing my art is something that I crave as much now as I did before I went full-time with my photography. If you think that a career in landscape photography will give you more opportunities to travel freely, then you could be right, but those opportunities may still be fewer than what you would like. I know many amateurs and part-time professionals who are able to devote more time to personal travel than is the case for most full-time landscape photographers.
Regardless of why a photographer might end up traveling, a lot of time away from home complicates many aspects of daily life, especially those involving communication. These complications include being without phone or data signals, dealing with time zone differences, and not receiving mail or packages easily. It can be very difficult to reply to messages, to return calls, or to keep in touch with friends and family. If you are not able to travel with the people who are closest to you, then you may have to accept that communication with them is likely to be very limited.
Of course frequent travel does have its benefits. Life on the move tends to be exciting, especially for anyone who enjoys a frequent change of scenery and is invigorated by cultural variety and by meeting interesting people. If you ‘travel well’ and can tolerate a certain amount of discomfort and inconvenience, then life on the move can be a wonderful existence. Even if it is often exhausting, a life full of travel is a life full of living.
Anyone who takes a keen interest in nature photography probably enjoys being outdoors, but working professionally can require an especially intense level of outdoor activity. For example, on a recent run of five workshops in the desert, I spent 28 nights sleeping in a tent over a six-week period, and the quality of sleep was often quite poor due to extreme temperatures and high winds. While teaching workshops in the mountains I do a lot of hiking and backpacking, so much that I have permanent marks on my hips from the waist belts on my backpacks. My knees have seen happier days, and one of my ankles frequently reminds me of the time that I broke it when I fell into a snowy terrain trap. Frequent exposure to the sun and to the elements means dealing with a whole variety of skin issues, from dry skin to sunspots and the related risk of skin cancer. Alas, spending a large amount of time outdoors does come with some consequences, any one of which could be particularly serious for a person with relevant health issues.
On the other hand, a life lived outdoors also brings some substantial health benefits. It is a great feeling to be very physically fit due to continual outdoor activity, and breathing fresh air on a regular basis is an additional boon to overall good health. Even frequent exposure to sunlight has its advantages, causing positive psychological effects that can improve a person’s mental health quite noticeably.
Shooting Wide Open
If you are the type of person who prefers to maintain a low profile, then a career as a landscape photographer will present some special challenges. As an artist in any medium, your name is inextricably linked to your business, meaning that anonymity will tend to hinder your success. The more willing you are to ‘put yourself out there’, the easier it will be for you to sustain yourself with your art. This openness may mean agreeing to do interviews, to do some public speaking, to network with industry professionals, to cooperate with brands, to make appearances at gallery openings and art shows, to write a blog, to correspond with fans, or to be engaged on social media. If you can embrace the idea of being open to the photography world and its appreciators, then life as a professional will be easier for you.
Balancing creative interests with the need to survive is the classic dilemma of the professional artist. No matter how you bring in your photography income, you will always reach a point where you know that some amount of creative compromise could have the potential to improve your financial results. Even if you maintain the highest level of integrity in privileging your own creative interests, you may still feel uneasy about it, especially if other people depend upon your income to some extent. Moreover, you will sometimes encounter the not uncommon notion that professional artists are ‘in it for the money’ or are otherwise ignoble, an idea rooted in antiquity, when the art forms with the highest status were those that required the least amount of labor. Having the ability to tune out such distractions is essential to staying focused on your art and to enjoying a career as a landscape photographer.
While there will always be exceptions that prove the rule, in general, a hardworking landscape photographer can expect to make a middle-class income. Many aspiring professionals wonder how to achieve even that level of sustenance, and the best advice that I can offer is to evaluate the full range of options for putting a strong photography portfolio to work for you. The classic idea of photos as commodities that can sell as prints or as licensed images is only one possibility. A compelling body of work can also attract other photographers who would like to learn from you, so photography education can be a good option for anyone who has the inclination and aptitude for teaching the techniques, craft, history, and ideas that can help other photographers to advance their art. Other options include writing books, writing for magazines, creating videos, monetizing social media accounts, or accepting support from sponsors. If you can create a special body of work, then you can probably find a way to make it bring in a reasonable annual income, provided that you are willing to put in the effort and to make the necessary sacrifices that might affect your lifestyle.
Despite the many drawbacks that I’ve mentioned above, I awake each morning excited to get out of bed (or out of my sleeping bag) and get to work. A lot of what is required can be onerous at times, but it nonetheless results in a special feeling of satisfaction that my efforts are all supporting my art and my greatest ambitions. Just as rewarding is the great pleasure that comes from teaching and sharing my passion with people who are so happy to indulge in it themselves. It is truly wonderful to see the light that seems to switch on inside of a person when they learn something new, when inspiration sets a fire within them, and when saying goodbye, they offer a hand or a hug and their eyes sparkle with sincere gratitude or camaraderie. It is a great privilege to meet so many interesting and inspiring people each year and to feel as though we are jointly contributing in some way to one of humankind’s greatest collaborative projects, the ongoing exchange of ideas that is art.
Of course most of these rewards can come without any amount of professional activity, but a life dedicated to their realization is likely to bring them more often and at higher levels. If you feel fueled by such motivations and are prepared to make the necessary sacrifices, then life as a professional landscape photographer may be the right path for you.
Which features of the profession do you see as the most challenging or rewarding? Do you have any questions about professional landscape photography that I haven’t addressed in this article? Please feel free to comment 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 Instagram.
Last Fall myself and a handful of my Photo Cascadia peeps headed down to the desert southwest region. I had only been down that way a couple times before, the only longish trip before I had the knowledge and desire to create art like I do today. Needless to say I was very eager for the trip not only to travel with great friends but also in hopes coming home with a few images for the portfolio and experiences to last a lifetime.
Although this time of year normally consists of chasing scenes with yellow, red and other similar hues that are planted in the ground, this was not that trip. In fact I came home after 9 days with over 2,300 files and no fall color in any of them. Beyond that it was likely one of my most productive trips of this length that I can recall. What I have in this post is a healthy dose from that trip yet it’s a series of folders I will dive into periodically to find more nuggets to process for years to come.
David Cobb and I touch down in Las Vegas. Grabbed the rental car and headed to eat. I am always hungry for those that don’t know me well. David tells me if we were stranded on a boat in the middle of the ocean he would throw me over before he started to look like my next meal. I can’t blame him. We scarfed down lunch sitting outside right next to the sports car race track. Damn those cars are loud in this setting. After raising our voices just to talk over lunch we get on the highway, we leave behind Vegas in search of tranquil nature scenes.
We meet up with Chip Phillips and Zack Schnepf as they were just wrapping up a couple days in Zion National Park. After a quick pit stop for supplies in St George we decided to make our way to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We planned to camp on the back roads outside the park yet seeing many of the backroads with head lights for the likes of hunting season, we opted for the modern day comforts of a hotel. We will camp this trip, just not here.
We head out before day break because well that is what we are here for. It’s a long haul from where we lodged to the rim but sunrise doesn’t disappoint. We stand along the edge at Cape Royal. I don’t really care how amazing the sky is or isn’t, it’s simply a great feeling to stand here. The warm light hitting the rocks and first time in over a decade to the area was a reminder why it was worth coming back to. After the sunrises we stop in a turn out along the road and eat a tailgating breakfast of champions.
After a few hours back at the hotel we cruise back to Cape Royal for sunset. This is a beautiful spot and conditions prime that evening with dappled light and showers rolling through. Complete with colorful rainbow and moody storm clouds, and of course among great friends. The light fades away into darkness; the photos will be here to keep the memories in the light.
I am thankful for this time of year with less daylight and more opportunities for zzz’s between sunset and sunrise. This morning we head to Point Imperial. We pull in to a quiet parking lot. We are the only cars here. Any noise we hear is us and a gentle breeze.
As we setup the sky and steep jagged cliffs glow every shade of red I can remember seeing in nature over the years. We tell stories, we shoot, and we laugh. We shoot some more and more laughs. You don’t want it to end. Until for some reason while I am packing up I open my wallet and realize I am missing my credit card. Doh!
I didn’t mention it earlier but we are here for the last few days the North Rim is open for the season. The droves of tourists have long departed and the visitor center’s shelves look like a department store that had long been out of business, empty. It’s the right time to be here for photography, except the warm monsoon summer season which is too warm for me.
When we get back Zack walks out from the restaurant holding my credit card in the air. Whew! I had left it at the restaurant the night before. The cars are packed and it’s time to head to the next location.
After a decent drive we make it to a location of Grand Staircase Escalante that we had hoped to get to. There were a couple water crossings that fortunately were running low for David’s new favorite vehicle in the whole world could make it through, our rental Jeep Compass. And to think it didn’t even have a compass. Huh.
We do some scouting and find a good place to put our tents down to call home for the next couple nights. All we see is openness and desert cliffs from camp. It’s a great place to park it.
The next couple days here are an all you can eat buffet of scrumptious light, flavorful skies and delicious scenes. I told you my mind can revolve around food.
This day brings more good times, good shots and good camp food. By the afternoon we see a trail of dust off in the distance slowly barreling our way. Erin has joined us for a few days of this desert adventure.
We leave Grand Staircase Escalante behind for a bit to check out another spot. The Coal Mine. With no camping nearby we find a hotel to crash at after visting the location for sunset. We cross the street for dinner. Here we learn time is an hour forward from where we stood across the street. What?! It’s hard enough that Arizona doesn’t change their clocks for daylight savings yet some reservations do recognize it while others don’t. In this case the restaurant was on the reservation land and the hotel was not. We almost missed sunrise one day having our heads flopping back in this mini time warp.
After peaceful and majestic sunrise at the Coal Mine, back at the hotel we say good-by to Chip and Zack who start their journey back to the Pacific Northwest. David and I had a few more days before heading back home via Sin City.
Erin, David and I make our way to one of many slot canyon options in Grand Staircase Escalante. The day is late and we know better than to hike miles upstream and come out in the dark. We explore enough to know it’s worth a full day.
We come back to the same canyon from the prior day. We arrive just after sunrise. Spending all day exploring, photographing and crisscrossing the water with my water logged boots. We hike out and make back to the car just after sunset. The dim light almost calling for a headlamp, I enjoy dusk and let my eyes adjust instead.
Erin needs to start her long drive back this morning. We part ways and now it’s down to David and me for the final couple days. Being in Page this day we decided to visit this little known place called Horseshoe Bend. Besides visiting The Grand Canyon during the off season with few people around, we have tried to avoid iconic landmarks. I don’t mind photographing them, and I will, yet I don’t seek out trips that I am simply trophy hunting. To me there is no fun in that. A sense of exploring places with few others around is part of the thrill of nature photography.
As you can imagine Horseshoe Bend was not a quiet spot. Mind you I have never been here and I show up in the dark before sunrise. I find what looks like a decent spot (can’t really tell) and setup more to enjoy the scene but do plan to take a photo or two. As dawn breaks on a gray day as if I brought it with me from Oregon, I hear another couple photographers pass behind me on the trail. One of them says “That guy is in my spot” and I turn to realize the only person he can be talking about is me since no one is next to me. Really!? This solidified why I am not drawn to visit the icons on a regular basis.
As I pack up David and I connect again. I realize I lost one of the feet on my Gitzo tripod. I was sure I had it on when I was photographing that morning. I have no extras this trip and thankful we are near the end and I can make do. Hiking the ~1 mile trail out about half way up I just happen to look down and I see a dark object. I bend down and pick it up. It’s a foot that fits my tripod perfectly! Whether it truly fell off my tripod or I picked up someone else’s I can’t say for certain. Either ways it worked out.
David and I start our trek back in the morning. We settle on the last night camping at Valley of Fire. We make it there in time for some brief photography before the ranger comes barreling down the road at dusk ensuring everyone is out.
Up at sunrise we head back into the prime area of the park that is closed at night. We photograph The Wave while exploring other areas until the light is harsh and photography at this point is small scenes requiring the use of my t-shirt as diffuser. It’s November and for my Pacific Northwest body is downright hot outside. How folks living down here deal with this in the summer I have no idea. I love it down here yet my body prefers cold over hot. It’s easier to layer up; you can only remove so many layers before it’s an issue in multiple ways.
We enjoy our nice little camping spot for the morning and head into the city that never sleeps. I know David as our main driver was sad to say goodbye to our gutless and compass-less Jeep Compass.
Leaving I already make plans in my head when I want to return, both for a family trip and photography. I can’t wait another decade without a decent trip down here. If you have not been and wonder why, just try reading the work of Edward Abbey or newer work from Guy Tal. There is much to ponder, dream and explore in this area to fill a lifetime.
“In my mind these experiences are a kind of retirement savings – the moments and memories I will someday recall with the same bittersweet joy and immense gratitude I felt experiencing them, and I will know that I truly lived”
– Guy Tal, More Than A Rock
“Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread. A civilization which destroys what little remains of the wild, the spare, the original, is cutting itself off from its origins and betraying the principle of civilization itself.”
― Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
(If you are reading this article via email subscription, make sure to click the title link to view the video on the blog)
In my opinion, photography is one of the most fun, healthy, enriching, energizing and positive pastimes a person can be involved in. It is a creative outlet and it also provides an ongoing source of learning and intellectual stimulation. It gets you outside and provides a pathway for greater appreciation of nature. It is accessible to people of all ages, interests, experience and ability. It teaches you to slow down and really notice the world around you. One of the greatest joys photography has brought me is the social aspect of it. While photography can certainly be private, introspective and deeply personal, it also offers wonderful opportunities to connect with other human beings. Many of my best friends and colleagues are people I met through photography and some of my most gratifying conversations, collaborations, adventures, and experiences are the result of hanging out with people who share my passion for photography. I have had the pleasure of meeting and communicating with photographers from all over the world, I have been a student and a teacher and I have been fortunate to travel with friends and lead workshops to all corners of the globe.
Perhaps my favorite social photography experiences is the “road trip”. I love the adventure and freedom of being out on the road; sleeping in a different place every night, seeing new sights and being able to simplify, focus and relax. Sharing the road trip experience with others only enhances it. I’ve enjoyed road tripping since college, although back then my road trips were rock climbing trips and the real adventure was finding out if my $600 car would break down in the middle of nowhere. My first photography dedicated road trip was in 2004. It was a solo trip and it left me with some great memories. But what was missing was the laughter, the collaboration, the camaraderie and the synergy. The conversation certainly left something to be desired as well. And now I find I miss being able to reminisce with someone about that trip.
Since then I have been on at least a couple photo road trips each year, some of them solo, but most of them with friends, colleagues, and clients. Most recently I went tripping with two of my best friends and Photo Cascadia teammates, Zack Schnepf and David Cobb. All of these photos are from that trip. I have traveled with each of these swarthy gents many times and we have THE best time together. For this trip we had planned to search out winter conditions in the Tetons or the Canadian Rockies, but the day before we left the weather forecast indicated low cloud cover for days to come in those locales, so we redirected our plan to California just hours before departure. With the Millenium Falcon filled to the gills with camera gear, tripods, duffel bags, sleeping bags, snowshoes and plenty of tortillas and refried beans, we hit Interstate 5 south with the Louis CK Pandora station playing and scarcely a clue where we were going. The next seven days on the road took us to Yosemite National Park, where thousands were photographing the famous Horsetail Falls “firefall” but we opted to shoot in solitude along the Merced River instead, then to Joshua Tree in the rain, a couple of days in Death Valley and finally up the east side of the Sierra Nevada along the Owens River Valley.
Along the way and per usual we told bad jokes, ate junk food at truck stops, listened to audio books, solved the world’s problems and held snoring competitions sleeping in the Falcon’s tight quarters. The photography conditions were good but not great, but what we lacked in light we compensated for by regaling each other with tall tales of epic photo sessions of the past. We did manage to bring home a few passable images as well. At the end of the trip, I scraped together the images and video we had taken with our phones, added in some aerial footage I took while learning to fly my new drone, and put it together into the short behind the scenes video you’ll find at the beginning of this article. I think the video will give you a fun view into the spirit of this trip. I hope you enjoy it.
We all photograph for different goals, reasons and rewards. We aren’t all cut out to be social photographers, at least not all the time. But if you do enjoy photo tripping with others consider contributing a thought, an experience, a road trip tip or a favorite route in the comments below. If you haven’t road tripped but want to and are just lacking companions, I would suggest joining your local photography club, becoming active in online photography communities such as Flickr or Facebook groups or signing up for photography workshops or photography tours.
Sean is a full-time photographer and photography educator. You can see more of his images and find out about his video tutorial courses and upcoming workshops, tours and classes on his website at www.OutdoorExposurePhoto.com.
Lucky number seven in 2016 for Photo Cascadia. Seven for the first full year with seven team members and seven for the number of years Photo Cascadia has been around. Speaking of luck it was honestly mostly luck in the beginning that this specific team of photographers formed, have become good friends and enjoy sharing experiences and knowledge with all of you for as long as we have. During this time we have seen similar groups form and fold. We hope this seven year stretch is only the beginning of our journey as you join us along for the ride. In the end it’s you, the readers, that continue to provide energy for what we do at Photo Cascadia. For this we are extremely grateful and thankful… thank you!
Where did 2016 take you for adventure and photography? I am sure it was similar to many on the Photo Cascadia team where we spent time in our own backyards, crossing state lines as well as some continent hopping. If you have been watching our blog for more than a year now you will know that mid December is when Photo Cascadia takes a break from our weekly posting until mid January. It’s our time to step back and reflect on the year that has past while winding down with family and friends.
As we reflect on things it’s a good time to remember that all the places we get to visit should be available for those that come after us. It seems 2016 we unfortunately saw a rise, at least in the media if not reality, around people doing permanent damage to places we all want to enjoy and photograph as well as companies and political forces looking to seize locations set aside for long term preservation. Now days, perhaps more than ever, we all need breaks into nature whether some of us realize it or not as the number of us living in a concrete jungle grows. With that I leave you with one of my favorite quotes.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey
We take this time to provide a year end visual show of where we have traveled with some behind the scenes clips. Take a four minute break and check it out.
May your year close out with many lasting memories and the new year start with a trail full of endless possibilities.
by Zack Schnepf
Back when I was taking my first photography classes in college, instructors would ask me what I was trying to say with my images. At the time, I thought this was just something art instructors said. I came to understand that effective art is often able to communicate something to the viewer. Sometimes it’s an emotion, a mood, a sense of wonder, or an overall feeling you get when you sit and appreciate a work of art. I’ve felt disturbed by documentary photos in war torn countries, pure joy viewing a photo of lion cubs wrestling his brother, I’ve felt the cold in images of mountain climbers summiting massive snowy peaks and I’ve felt awe and wonder viewing photos of majestic moments captured in nature. I’ve had many profound moments out in the field photographing. I became a photographer so I could share these profound moments with other people as well as remind myself of some of my favorite moments. If i’m able to communicate some of what I’m experiencing through my image I consider it a successful image. In this article I’ll talk about trying to communicate through my images and how it effects how I capture an image in the field and how I process and image in post production.
In the field: There are already so many things to think about in the field; changing light, composing multiple elements together, difficult environmental conditions, not to mention all of the technical settings you have to balance as well. It can be chaotic. It can be difficult to also think about trying to communicate through your image. It doesn’t have to always be something profound you are communicating, sometimes it’s simple things. In this example, I loved the lines of erosion here in White Pocket in Arizona. I noticed if I composed with my camera about 8 inches off the ground It really accentuated the pattern of erosion and helped tell the story of these petrified sand dunes eroding away over time in the wind and rain. I also tried to compose to accentuate the natural curve and texture in the rock. To me, this helped communicate the incredible history of erosion that has taken place to create this natural work of art.
In this example, I was scouting for a workshop when I saw this lone tree out in the middle of these overlapping green hills in the Palouse. I put on my telephoto lens and shot at about 300mm to focus in on the this one solitary tree surrounded by these hills. To me, framing this way helped convey a feeling I was having looking at the scene. This shot was actually captured during the workshop in much more interesting conditions. A rain storm was clearing as the sun was rising creating this atmosphere that helped convey the emotions I was feeling even more. Even in the field I was struck with emotion as I looked at this scene. It seemed to communicate an independent strength and integrity. The backlight through the falling rain just reinforced this feeling. I knew when I worked on this in photoshop, I wanted to process this in a way that helped communicate those same feelings.
In post production: There is a lot you can do in post production to enhance your images, you can also accentuate elements that help the image communicate. With the lone tree image, I accentuated the backlight on the tree and hills to help the tree feel luminous and help it stand out even more in the scene. To me this is a very successful image, every time I look at it I still feel some of what I felt in the field.
This was my first time visiting Avalanche Creek in Glacier National Park. I was with my good friend David Cobb at the time. I was so enamored with this scene, I really wanted to capture it in a way that helped convey what a unique and special place it is. This is a very common theme in my photography, I love to share my own awe and wonder when visiting these special places and I try to capture them in a way that expresses that. It was also very peaceful and I felt a great wave of tranquility as I sat and took in this scene. I set up in a pretty unusual spot, I had to be very careful not to slip and fall in, but I loved the compositional flow that was created here. Again, this is a successful image to me, because every time I look at it I feel some of the tranquility, awe and wonder I felt when I was there. This is also a popular image at art shows, and people tell me they feel peaceful when they look at it.
This last example was just taken a few weeks ago while I was vacationing and photographing on the Big Island of Hawaii. My family moved to Hawaii for a few years when I was a kid and I was lucky enough to witness Kilauea erupt in spectacular fashion when I was five years old. It is an experience that is burned into my memory. This recent trip was my first opportunity to capture some of that experience in my own photography. Cj Kale guided me out to the flow on this particular morning and it was quite a show. It’s so dynamic watching a lava flow, it’s constantly changing, moving and doing unpredictable things. There was so much going on, the flow was changing, the waves were crashing and wind was blowing the steam all around. It was such a privilege to watch the creation of a new part of the island right before my eyes. I really wanted to capture a moment like this with the lava visibly flowing, the waves crashing and the steam catching the light of the lava. Its was extremely challenging, but rewarding. Again, to me the is a successful image. It captures just how dynamic and dramatic it was to watch the lava flowing into the ocean creating new land. It was a transcendent moment for me, one where I was reminded how small and insignificant we are, it was powerful to witness something that has been shaping our planet for much of it’s four billion year history.
I love being able to share moments like this through my photography. It’s why I became a photographer. Images like these are some of my favorites, because I feel something when I look at them and other people do as well. Trying to communicate through my own images has helped me become a better photographer and continues to make photography more rewarding. You can learn more about me, my images and the workshops and tutorials I offer on my website: http://www.zschnepf.com
“The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you’re walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That’s the moment you may be starting to get it right.” —Neil Gaiman
Exhibiting any creative work entails some amount of risk. Anyone who has a reason to show their work to others has a reason to care about how well it is received. No creative photographer is ever entirely immune to fretting over that simple question that begs for consideration before the release of a new photograph: “Will they like it?” Even if all that is at stake is a feeling of accomplishment, the risk is real, especially for those photographs that we hold dearest.
The higher levels of risk involve decisions that take us outside our norms, whether they are departures from the conventions of a genre as a whole or simply from those of one’s own oeuvre. A risky decision might entail working in a certain type of light, featuring an obscure location, composing in an unconventional fashion, employing a new post-processing treatment, or any number of other decisions that might place us outside our comfort zones. The further we step out on a limb, the more unnerving it can be, so having a strong will is important for taking those steps. What follows is advice for making risky creative decisions with confidence, some thoughts to keep in mind when you feel as though you may be flying without a net.
Onward and Upward
Risk is essential to creative work. Taking risks is how we make progress, how we manage to put something of our own selves into our photographs, and how we can get that special taste of satisfaction for having done so. It is all too easy to fall into habits that seem to work well and that feel safe, and sometimes those habits can become limiting. Of course, there is a lot to be said for reaching a point of some consistency as an artist. Establishing what we like is crucial to self-expression, so consistency in a portfolio usually indicates a certain level of creative maturity. Nonetheless, if consistency drifts into habitual repetition, it ceases to be self-expression; at that point, it’s just rehashing. When you find yourself at a crossroads wondering if you should play it safe or take a risk on something, just remember that the latter option is likely to be more rewarding in the long run. Even if you deem it a failure at first, your decision may be a first step towards a development that you never could have imagined at the outset.
Move Towards, Not Away
Probably the strongest reason to make any unusual creative decision is because of a compulsion to do it. If we are genuinely drawn to an idea or are at least curious to see the results, then we are responding to an inner urge, following our own instincts. The opposite situation would be to make a decision to do something unusual for the mere sake of novelty, fixating on what we want to avoid instead of on what we find interesting. Creativity is the pursuit of ideas and the application of them, not a simple rejection of what came before. If a risky decision holds distinct appeal, then at least you know that you’re following your own nose when you carry it out, and that is usually reason enough to do it.
Be in it for the Long Haul
When a photograph departs from some kind of norm, a portion of your audience may not ‘get’ it. Accept that familiarity is appealing to most people, and that not everyone who typically enjoys your photographs will cheer you on enthusiastically down whatever trail you may blaze. Even if your experiments do not result in immediate encouragement, there could be momentum building, and if that is the case, then you will only ever realize it if you stay the course. Regardless, doing something unconventional is gutsy, and that point in itself should provide a certain degree of satisfaction and motivation. Knowing that you are being true to yourself is a source of real power that can continue to propel you forward.
Be Honest with Yourself
It is possible to convince ourselves that our accidents are happy ones, especially if we put a lot of effort into a photograph that ultimately missed a mark in some regard. If a photograph has some quality that is unusual simply because misfortune struck, then it should undergo special scrutiny. Sometimes the results of happenstance will be genuinely appealing and will inspire further experimentation along the same lines, but otherwise we need to let go. We should never allow a rescue mentality to convince us that an unsatisfactory photo is a bold act of creativity.
Tomorrow is Another Day
Keeping perspective is important. No matter what you produce today, even if it amounts to the biggest feather in your cap, the next blank canvas awaits you. What ultimately matters most is the process of creation, which for a nature photographer means experiencing the outdoors, having responses to those experiences, and expressing those responses through the medium of photography. Everything that follows is peripheral and should not be allowed to derail the process. As the saying goes, just keep on keeping on—and above all, remember to have fun.
How do you handle risky decisions? Is there anything that you like to keep in mind to make them any easier? Please feel free to share your thoughts 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.
Over the last couple years I have been taking notes on my phone of various thoughts on what I feel have learned from my time in photography. Hard to believe it’s been a decade now since I started to take it seriously. Along with these random thoughts I referenced some of my past presentation slides and some were created as I typed this post out. Those that know me should not be surprised. I like lists and that is really all this is! I am sure I will get the question… why 45? It’s simply because that is what I ended up with. It’s not some magic number that represents anything special.
1. New or expensive gear can be nice yet does not make you a better photographer. It’s good to follow what is coming out and changing without pulling out that credit card for every announcement.
2. The rat race of social media is not worth fretting over counting likes, comments and shares. Sometimes you are ahead, sometimes you are behind.
3. A sense of camaraderie and making friends in photography is very important. Don’t always fly solo.
4. A good outdoor trip with few to no keepers is still better than being indoors. It’s the experience that helps shape who we are.
5. In my early years I thought my work was awesome but it really stunk like a skunk and I am fine with that. Everyone starts somewhere. I can never stop growing and learning.
6. Don’t under value your own work. Always selling your work for peanuts does not help you or the industry. It’s okay to say no to some requests.
7. Be open to feedback, whether it’s praise or constructive critique. Simply being open to listening to others opinions does not mean you have to change your work. On the flip side be respectful when you provide feedback.
8. No matter the accomplishments (or failures) it’s still a photo and I am still the same person. Don’t pat yourself on the back too much nor give yourself too hard of a time.
9. Placing well or winning a well-known photography competition will not bring you fame or fortune.
10. If you send a photo out to a client with a known flaw they will find it. I learned to always spend the money to reprint when needed.
11. The one photo you post on your website that you can’t print large for whatever reason, is the one someone will request large.
12. My horizon will be off by 2 degrees no matter what tools I use in the field. Horizon correction software was made for people like me.
13. Abstract photos often get little love online (or in general) but I post them anyway because I love them. Even when photography is a business there needs to times when it’s be purely for you.
14. Everyone has at least one piece of equipment they will regret going the ultra-cheap route. Mine was remotes going through 6 in about a year before learning my lesson.
15. Although I love to travel I won’t be able to visit every place on the planet that I see in other photographers photos. I am fine with this. Be happy where you can get to and just enjoy getting out.
16. In nature photography there’s much more than photographing colorful sunrises and sunsets day in and day out. Don’t forget to look down and all around at all times of the day and in all weather.
17. Trying to ‘fix’ a photo in post processing that was shot poorly is usually like trying to salvage a half sunken ship. Get it right from the beginning.
18. The most amazing sky an hour or two before sunset will often end up being the biggest dud by the time the golden hour comes.
19. Sometimes you need to leave the camera behind (or stop chasing new scenes) and focus on family. Trying to do both all the time won’t make you or the family happy.
20. Taking an amazing photo, whatever that means at the time for me, does bring a sense of elation and high that likely only other photographers understand.
21. I went through a funk more than once where photography carried little interest or inspiration to me for months. We all go through phases. Let it ride knowing you will come out on the other side.
22. Collaborate where and when you can. I wouldn’t be writing this blog post for the Photo Cascadia site right now if I wasn’t open to collaborating with others (who in the end have become good friends).
23. Your equipment will fail you at the most inopportune time if you photograph enough. I have many stories with a full corrupt CF card from a wedding where I was the sole photographer near the top.
24. Try saying “Woah look at the body!” out loud at work while viewing the latest camera online. Guarantee you will get some interesting looks and responses.
25. No I won’t license my image for free to use in an article where you will place my website URL while I will wait for the inquiries to purchase my work come pouring in.
26. It’s okay to compare your work to others as a means of learning and growing with your photography. Doing it thinking others are good and you’re not is self-destructive.
27. I am merely a single pixel in a very large sensor we call earth and a tiny blimp on the radar of time. I don’t take myself too seriously and neither should you.
28. Nature photography and loving the outdoors is something my wife and I had in common when we met and still do today. I am always thankful for the support she shows to this endeavor called photography.
29. I try not criticizing others work solely because it doesn’t align with what I think is great photography. Simply because I don’t think it is great doesn’t mean it’s any less worthy.
30. I have learned as much (or more) from bad photos as from good photos I have taken. It’s never a complete waste.
31. You can do pretty much anything in post processing except replicating what a good polarizer can do when it comes to removing glare. It’s not a tool to leave behind.
32. No matter how well you know your equipment there will be a time(s) you make a rookie mistake. When taking photos the day after night photography don’t forget to bring down that ISO or changing back to RAW after photographing your kids soccer game.
33. Take risks with your photography without risking your life. If you are not around to enjoy taking photos it obviously wasn’t worth it. Fortunately I am here to write this.
34. Study. Whether it’s studying how you take photos in the field or studying photography online or many other ways, it’s all important to avoid becoming stagnant. The only constant in life is change.
35. If you care about your photos read the fine print before submitting to photography contests. You may be giving the rights away without knowing it.
36. Don’t worry much about ‘comp stomping’ as being original with every photo today is hard even in best of intentions. Your style and creativity will come in time.
37. It’s not worth the effort and cost to print my own work. I will always use a lab.
38. Take time to get your work printed even if it’s small prints or books. It’s a shame to leave everything you photograph to online viewing only. Viewing your work printed is seeing it in a different light.
39. Be leery of projects that require investment of time and or money that give a guaranteed return for someone else but not you. I have been burned a couple times not seeing the warning signals soon enough.
40. Use your animal instincts and don’t forget to chimp before you leave the scene. Coming home and saying @%#&! because you missed something that would have been an easy correction is painful.
41. If you don’t own a good tripod and ball head, stop reading this article now and go buy one immediately. All the best equipment means little with nature photography if your tripod sucks.
42. Leading workshops is hard work to do it right. If you don’t care about being a true guide/teacher to others and it’s only for the all mighty dollar or to simply grow your personal photo collection, do everyone a favor and don’t hold workshops.
43. No matter how much technology advances understanding composition is paramount. The best camera technology isn’t going to set the camera up for you, tell where to place your tripod legs and what to focus on… at least not yet.
44. Watching your children taking their first photos that are more than snap-shots is a very cool and rewarding feeling. Especially when they are as excited about it as you are.
45. Less is more. Do what you can to simplify elements in your composition. One of the larger challenges as nature photographers is to take busy and chaotic scenes from Mother Nature to make a compelling photograph.
I am sure I could keep typing with endless thoughts on what I have learned from photography yet this is good stopping point and enough to ponder for those that took the time to get this far in my post. Whether you have been interested in photography for 45 days or 45 years, feel free to share what you have learned from your time behind the camera.
In May of this year I had an opportunity to spend a few days in Acadia National Park. If you are not familiar with the area it’s in the state of Maine, one of the six states making up the New England region. When it comes to photography the area is certainly more known for visiting in fall season to capture vivid red, yellow and orange colors from the plethora of deciduous trees filling the landscape. Fall season aside there is still much to see and photograph during the other three seasons, including spring. In spring the trees and foliage are in full bloom with an array of green hues to fill up your camera lens.
While a few days allows for seeing the main sites I would overall recommend a couple more beyond that to check out more of the area and get on a couple more trails or kayaking. I will also say I am someone that typically researches quite a bit ahead of time for any trip of a few days or more. This one I pretty much winged it. I give that caveat ahead of my trip review for additional context.
When I got into Acadia it was the Friday starting on Memorial Day weekend. I was certainly prepared for jammed roads, too many tourists and little space. Much to my surprise it was not bad at all with plenty of moments to take in the area without too much commotion.
There are many options just outside of park as well as some inside the park, including camping. Since lodging when I travel by myself literally means a decent place to sleep, and nothing more, I chose an inexpensive motel on the main highway just outside the main entrance of the park. It worked out well for me.
In the park options are limited. Just outside the park there places like Bar Harbor with plenty of options. As said before I was mainly there to see sites. I hit the local grocery store and used the fridge at the motel. Don’t forget to eat plenty of lobster, it’s pretty much everywhere.
You can actually fly into Bangor International which is only about a 45 mile drive to Acadia. I happened to already be in Portland (Portland, Maine that is not to be confused with my hometown Portland, Oregon) where it made sense for me to drive the 160 miles vs getting on another plane.
There is a little bit of everything here from small ponds to ocean waves and lush forests to mountain views. The Park Loop Rd is the main route in the east portion of the park. One thing I like about the setup of the main loop is the one-way two lane feature where the right lane doubles as a parking spot in most parts. For photography this is great. I see something I like and can literally stop the car in the middle of the road to get out and take photos. Yes this means that once you pass a spot the only way back to it is doing the full loop again but the pros outweigh the cons.
Whether you like rough rocky shores or small town boat harbors ANP has them as well. The iconic Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse is located outside the busiest part of the park and worth checking out. Truth be told I was looking forward to photographing the Portland Head Lighthouse more, yet on my visit it was dressed in scaffolding for maintenance, maybe next time.
The first afternoon and morning of my second day brought spells of fog which made for some great atmosphere to photograph. We often talk about national parks being too crowded and for the most part I agree with that. Yet on my first evening I was photographing this fine grove of ferns and I had wondered if the park was closed and I got locked in! I spent 15 to 20 minutes standing on the road photographing this scene in the early evening with not a single car coming by and it was on the main park loop. All I could hear was the sound of occasional water dripping and leaves waving when breezes came through. It was fantastic.
The next morning as the sun scorched it’s way through the fog there was fine scenes I encountered. On this foggy road I ‘parked’ my car just behind where I stood to take this photo. Only a couple cars and runners strolled through.
My good friend and fellow Photo Cascadia team member did tell me there are good options for photographing rocks. There certainly are some cool finds. While my hair got soaked to the point water was running down my face from the dense fog I found this neat rock formation. I am thinking boot yet I also see a dolphin. What do you see?
Perhaps the most fun to see and photograph rock wise was Little Hunters Beach. There is no big sign to show you the way; you can easily miss it if you aren’t looking for it. It’s like one gigantic bag of marbles were dumped on the shore. Can’t remember the last time I saw this many beautiful rocks in one spot.
Some of the best views are up on Cadillac Mountain; at just over 460 meters is the highest point which feels low until you remind yourself you are on the ocean. You can hike just a short ways and be away from the masses. If you are a curb side shooter this place works too. Don’t be fooled thinking that just because you are nearing summer and sunrise is before 5 am that it will be quiet. Boy was I in for a surprise. Hundreds were up there to watch the sunrise, most just to experience the scene not to photograph.
This sunrise was the best I had all trip and the sliver of sun poking through was all we saw before the clouds engulfed it. This foreground seemed fitting as the rocks look a little like lobster claws.
If you prefer a little more man made than pure nature there is very nice little Japanese one right outside the park called Asticou Azalea Garden that is free to visit.
Definitely cannot forget about getting down close to the rugged rocky ocean shoreline. I get mesmerized watching the waves slosh around. Thunderhole is a great place to see if you can time it right for waves. During my time there the water was too calm for much action according to one of the rangers. No worry for me plenty else to see.
All in all it was a pretty quick trip yet a fine place to spend a few days photographing and exploring. If you have never been it’s certainly one to add to your bucket list. I hope to make a trip back during fall in the future.
On the subject of national parks I will get on my soap box ever so briefly. With the staggering increase volume of visitors each year to some of the major parks in the United States it’s no wonder we are seeing the many headlines of a small number of people making poor decisions negatively impacting a park landscape or wildlife. I would say mostly I have seen stories from Yellowstone this year yet that park is not alone. Others may not agree with me yet I feel the most popular parks are approaching a crisis. If we don’t effectively manage through the high visitor rate that appears to be continuing upward I fear a system of national parks we know today may be a lot less enjoyable 30 to 50 years from now. Although I don’t love permitting systems or limiting access to what we deem ‘our national parks’ I am beginning to wonder if the peak seasons at large popular parks need to entertain new ideas to effectively limit traffic, both number of people and vehicles. I won’t dive into a deep debate here, simply something to ponder. On that note get out there and enjoy your parks as I will be doing the same this summer with my family.
I don’t pretend to be a wildlife photographer; I do enjoy photographing wildlife and observing the behavior of animals in their habitat. If wildlife wanders into my landscape image I enjoy including it, and when I photograph wildlife I prefer to include it as part of the environment as opposed to creating a portrait image. Including an animal in the scene gives the viewer a gauge by which to measure the grandeur of a landscape; creating a sense of scale. It also tells the story of their habitat and under what conditions they live, which is far more interesting to me than a portrait. Of course, some wildlife is small, so the landscape adjusts accordingly to maybe a handful of leaves or the grasses of a prairie and entry to the den.
If I plan on photographing wildlife in a landscape, I first increase the ISO of my camera to 400 at a minimum. In addition, consider opening the f-stop up to f11 or even f5.6 for more shutter speed. Obviously this will create a shallower depth-of-field, but photography is always about trade-offs so consider what’s best for the image before you shoot. By increasing the shutter speed, the animal’s movement won’t be blurred. Of course, if you want to capture the motion of an animal with image blur, then keep your ISO on a slow setting and just pan your camera with the animal to capture the sense of movement. (I find this works best between 1/15th of a second and 1/40th, depending on the animal’s speed.) Be careful when approaching an animal, since it is wild, unpredictable, and there is no need to cause it undo stress–all good reasons to keep your distance and capture it in its environment.
As a general rule it’s best to have the animal walking into the scene in order to create a suggested line of site, and to lead the viewer’s eye through the composition. A catch-light in the animal’s eye is also important since it suggests life. Keeping the eye sharp is key, so focus here first and then recompose if necessary. I also try and separate the elements; I may wait for the animals to spread out a bit or shoot before and after my subject is behind that tree and not while the tree overlaps my subject. I also wait until the animal has a clean background. I don’t need branches or sticks protruding from the back of my subject’s head, so I keep it clean and I keep it simple.
When it comes to wildlife photography ethics automatically come into play, and for me I think it’s best to be an observer and not a participator in the scene. I don’t want to stress an animal, I’ll never bait it, and I won’t call out to it for better eye contact. I figure wildlife already has it hard, and I’m not there to make it any harder on them. If an animal changes its course or behavior because of me, then I’ve failed in my approach. If you’re photographing in a group, keep your distance and don’t surround your subject. Always give it an outlet for escape, which will create less stress in the animal, better photographs, and probably more time with your subject. There are enough stupid photographer videos online already, and we don’t need to add to the collection.
Hopefully these handful of tips will better help your photography and also the wildlife you’re there to photograph-enjoy and observe.