Bones of the Earth

imageI never wondered what the ground around me looked like growing up in Minnesota. The landscape did not encourage it. First, nearly all soil is covered by some sort of vegetation, forests and prairies or wetlands in natural areas, farmland in most of the rest. That can be pretty and an important part of what Minnesota looks like. But all that vegetation covers most variations in the structure of the ground.

Second, there is not much height variation there, so that vegetation often blocks you from viewing what the ground might look like even when you could see it. South of Minneapolis, there is a popular ski area with a maximum drop of ... wait for it ... 400 feet! As you drive in many areas, you can't see much past the forest at the edge of the roads.

Even when I started flying around the state for the Minnesota Department of Transportation as an information officer/photojournalist, I noticed nice rolling terrain softened by the vegetation, but not much more. Again, the lack of elevation made any details of the "bare" ground easily obscured by the plants.

The desert is a different story. Here, the ground is exposed and bare for anyone to see. Mountains in places like the Mojave Desert stick up from the ground as unadorned rock that I find a bit austere. Still, now you can see geology visualized in the ground. The desert easily reveals the bones of the earth.

Yet, I can't fully visualize these "bones" if I drive or move through the desert on the ground. The spaces through the Southwest are huge. I don't know about anyone else, but I find those spaces a little intimidating at times (maybe an aftereffect of growing up in Minnesota). I can more easily relate to a specific landform or small area.

imageFlying across the country changes all of that. I love to sit at the window and watch the land go by. I have photographed this aerial view many times, but with standard photography, I often concentrated on clouds (especially backlit clouds) because they looked good in photographs from the plane. The ground often didn't. From a commercial plane, you are limited in timing for the best light and so often you get haze that weakens color and contrast and so takes the life out of an image.

Not all that long ago, I returned to infrared (IR) photography (and wrote a bit about it in this blog), and it occurred to me that it might work for photos from the plane! It did! Though I made some mistakes (I learned you can't sit on the sun side of the plane because that causes all sorts of IR problems).

imageGoing to New York recently, the skies were mostly clear through the Southwest. We flew over through Southern California and across northern Arizona and New Mexico. I had my IR camera ready! And it was an amazing education in the bones of the earth. I saw the effects of erosion, especially water, on vast spaces, but from the air, you could understand. I saw some remarkable cliffs, canyons (including the Grand Canyon), desert mountains, old volcanoes, water flow patterns, river patterns and so much more. I had left my home early to catch an early flight. I had been tired, but I could not sleep with such amazing nature going by.

imageAll of the photos you see here are from that trip. They really do show the bones of the earth and offer to me a fascinating look at the wonder of geology, at how dramatic the ground can be when you can actually see it!

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Being Open to Nature Everywhere

I love national parks, wildlife refuges and other big areas of wild nature. Those places are dramatic and grab your attention.

imageBut for me, nature is much more than that. It has to be because I have to have my connection to nature, getting out into it, but I can't be in those big places all the time. I always look for nature everywhere I go, and because I expect to find it, I always find it. Sadly, many people in our country think nature is something you only find in big national parks and they miss the nature around them.

Whenever I go to New York City (which is not all that often anymore – it is an interesting place, but not a place I am comfortable in for very long), I try to go to Central Park. This changes everything about my visit. Central Park is filled with wonderful visions of nature, including some wild bits that truly connect with my soul. Because of the density of trees, you can find places that city sounds seem far away, and you mostly hear birds and people enjoying the park.

imageThe folks who decided to set this land aside for the park were so amazingly concerned for the future and something beyond short term profits. The landscape designer, Frederick Law Olmsted, did a brilliant job, too. The park has had its ups and downs over the years, but it is getting great care now and looks beautiful. And it is very safe (it is closed from 1:00 am to 6:00 am).

imageIn the many times I have visited Central Park over the years, I have never been through the entire park. It has an area of over 800 acres and has a six-mile perimeter. It is certainly possible to easily go through it (joggers and bikers do all the time), but that's not particularly interesting to me. I always find things that keep me connected to nature, and so I move slowly through the park, usually photographing it, too.

imageAll of the photos here were taken in Central Park last week. Spring nature is definitely there! Yes, there are places with lots of people – it is a busy place. But I can always find places where I can connect one-on-one with nature without really being disturbed.

imageSure, going to some location away from everyone is great, but when I can't, I will always find something of nature wherever I go. It is an attitude I cannot live without. Central Park is my "home" when I am in New York City!

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Authentic Photography

Authenticity1There is a lot of talk these days about authenticity, about being authentic. That includes criticism of people who seem to be "phony" or superficial rather than being authentic. This has made me think about what authentic photography might be.

Just the other day, I had a great illustration of authenticity and what it meant. Though it was not in photography, it definitely applies and it stimulated me to really examine what authenticity in photography means to me (and maybe to you).

Two friends made presentations at a spiritual event. One shared how he had spent a day with a gathering of people who interacted and related to each other and God in a way that touched him deeply. He talked on a very personal level and we could tell how much it had affected him. Several times he nearly came to tears. He was open and vulnerable, sharing something that meant a lot to him. All of us at the event were moved by his story.

The other friend got up and gave a different talk. His was professional and practiced. You could not fault him for anything. He used all the "right" words and good speaking techniques. He talked about God in all the right ways. His thoughts obviously were important to him, which is why he took the "important" approach. Yet, he talked more, it seemed, to sound good, to impress and to try to persuade rather than coming from from his heart, a place of authenticity. This was reinforced when we happened to talk to him later because he let down his guard and talked personally, directly, from the heart ... and it felt so authentic.

So which of the two do you think remained with me? And others I talked to? Not the second. I have no memory at all about what he said. Yet, I remember what the first friend said very well indeed. I remember the whole range of his thoughts, even points that I did not necessarily agree with.

Authenticity4Authenticity2This is not uncommon. There is evidence that we humans listen and react to people who come across as more authentic, when their message truly comes from the heart unaltered by "shoulds", "musts" and other internal constraints that try to make the message "important", even though it then comes across as superficial.

I believe this is true in photography. Look at Facebook and look at how many "great", beautiful photos you see there that get a lot of likes, but you can't remember them more than a few moments.  There also are so many images that are enhanced way beyond anything real on this planet and are so superficial. You might remember the crazy colors, but probably not the content. Other photos "meet the rules", but don't "meet" with other people or even us as photographers.

When I was younger, I used to think I had to do all of these "special" things to create dramatic and bold photos just to get attention for them. IMPORTANT: There is nothing wrong in working your craft to create dramatic and bold photos as long as that is true to you and in service of who you are as a photographer, your heart and what you care about in nature. The problem comes when you try to do this artificially, adding "technique" onto a photo because you "should", because you feel you "have to" in order to impress others, because you are more interested in making a splashy photo than anything else. I know this is true because I have done it, too.

I have worked professionally doing photography for a variety of clients over the years. All too often I tried to "please" the client rather than finding what was true about me and the subject matter, then working to share that with the client. While a lot of us have done the first, I have found that the consistently most successful photographers are the latter. They bring an authenticity to their work that clients do appreciate. If the clients don't, then the work of these photographers is not for those clients, and the photographers don't try to be someone they are not. I have often failed to do that, settling back into the "please the client" mode and not feeling satisfied or successful. And the results have also often been less than what I could have done if I had not had my own "pleasing" mode turned on (partly that comes from growing up in Minnesota – there is a culture of don't upset others, of paying too much attention to what others think – listen to Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion and what you might think is just funny is actually based on reality there).

As I have aged, I have been steadily progressing to something richer, more meaningful and connecting to me and who I am as a person and a photographer. I want my work to be more authentic. That is not to say I have not had authentic work in the past – I have, and I recognize that. But too often, my work has been degraded by trying too hard to be "good", to be "important", to connect with others by trying to please them. That's a bad route to be on.

I find that when I am authentic, I feel better about myself and my work, I am less sensitive to what people think of it, and I find I connect nature with others through my work better. That can mean being willing to be vulnerable and care so much that I get a little emotional. That authenticity is important to me and to the subjects I care about.

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Missing the Photographer

MissingPhotographer 7Talking about photos is easy. I have talked about photographs for a long time. I have critiqued many thousands of photos of mine and of my students. I have discussed photos in over 40 books of photography and during my time as editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine.

Talking about me is much less so. Yet, if we really want to discuss photography and photographs, we have to be willing to talk about you. Photography is never simply about technique and technology – what are the latest top tips and the shiniest new gear. It is always also about the photographer. Photography can influence your life, but your life also influences your photography.

Eastern Sierras and Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CaliforniaPhotography has been both a joy and a challenge. It has given a solid direction to my life and sometimes has been a source of frustration. Photography for me has been a journey into art, communication, nature and life. Photography has taken me places I never would have reached otherwise, helped me see the wonder of our world and given me experiences I will never forget.

In many ways photography and my work with it has defined who I am.

MissingPhotographer 5Photography starts with the choices we make about our gear (brand is less important than suitability to you) because there is no photography without some gear appropriate to the photography we want to do. (Appropriate is an important qualification – our gear has to fit us physically, ergonomically, psychologically.)

Photography continues with a concern for the art. Photography has often been described as the merging of art and technology. Technology alone is simply point-and-shoot snapshooting. Art alone has problems revealing itself because the medium cannot be controlled.

What is missing then? The photographer. We as photographers make many choices as we take the picture, from lens used to exposure to white balance to composition.

Eastern Sierras and Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, CaliforniaFour key choices the subject, the framing, the timing and the setting — come from a place inside, the core of who we are and how we see the world. Someone who loves all of nature will make different photographic choices than someone who is fearful of nature. Someone who is conservative politically will make different photographic choices than someone who is progressive. These choices are neither good nor bad, just a fact of photographic life. It is impossible to be an “objective” photographer because we cannot help but color our photographic decisions based on who we are.

No one ever talked about this when I was learning photography, and it is still not talked about much today. Photography is usually boiled down to technique and gear. Yet give two photographers the same gear and the same skills, then take them to the same location and they will come up with very different images. Better photography can never be boiled down simply to ten top tips.

I can tell you from a lifetime of joy and frustration, challenges and opportunities, that if you stay on that limited level of just gear and technique, you will never reach your full potential as a photographer. When you understand that who you are influences how you photograph, you gain a perspective that lets deal more effectively with your image making. It also makes you less susceptible to random criticism of your work from friends, family, camera club members and so on.

You will find you as truly the photographer, as a person who photographs, not someone easily swayed by the shiny objects of the latest gear and the newest techniques. All of the photos you see here from a shoot in the Eastern Sierras last year are as much about me as they are about the subject, technique and gear.

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Photo Exercise

When I did a survey of people on my mailing list, I found a number of things that stood out as needs for their photography. One included getting out and photographing (either finding or making the time) and another included improving their photographic skills.

PE composite VOne way to achieve both is to do regular photo exercise. I had a workshop many years ago with the great Ernst Haas. Haas was an innovator in magazine and 35mm photography. For example, he was the first published photographer to use creative blurs to communicate something about an activity (a photo essay on rodeos). His book, Creation, is a classic of color work.

Haas was a great believer in photo exercise. He referred to this as "finger exercises" in reference to concert pianists who do finger exercises to keep their fingers and their minds sharp. He said that no concert pianist would expect to go into a concert if he or she only worked with the piano during a concert, so that was why they did finger exercises. He felt that no photographers should expect to get great photos if they only photograph when trying to get great photos for similar reasons.

I believe this to be true. One reason why I keep a macro lens for my iPhone in my pocket is so I can always do some "finger exercises" or playing with photos just to see what might happen. All of the above photos were taken in a little park in downtown West Palm Beach, Florida, when I had a break between presentations, because I had that macro lens and iPhone with me.

There are a lot of good exercises and I will offer some here in the future. For today, here's one to start you on getting out and photographing while at the same time improving your photographic skills.

Depth of Field and Composition

Many photographers don't appreciate how important depth of field can be to composition. Mainly it creates emphasis in different ways. The same photo with a lot of depth of field has a different emphasis than one with shallow depth of field. That changed emphasis affects what a viewer looks at or doesn't look at in a photo and that is what composition is all about, affecting how a viewer sees the photograph and the elements in it.

More depth of field emphasizes a visual relationship in depth where different pictorial elements have similar emphasis because they have sharpness. You want to look throughout the photo from front to back. Shallow depth of field emphasizes a single subject or small area of the photo and its relationship to visual space within the composition. You cannot look throughout the photo equally because of the difference in depth of field, so you end up looking at the sharp subject along with the space around it.

PE 1 PE 2Here's an exercise to explore this. Find a scene that has interesting things in it from foreground to background, but be sure the foreground objects are fairly close to the camera (if all pictorial objects in the frame are at a distance, you will have a hard time creating a difference between deep and shallow depth of field). Use a tripod and shoot two photos, one at f/16 or f/22 (for deep depth of field) and one at the widest f/stop your lens offers, such as f/2.8 or f/4 (for shallow depth of field).

Try this multiple times. Maybe spend a whole afternoon doing these paired shots. Then go back and compare them side-by-side in your computer. Look to see how the depth of field affects the composition by changing how you look at things in the photos. Lightroom has two great tools in Library for this – Compare and Survey – just select two images and press C for compare or N for survey. Be sure to press the Tab key to hide the left and right panels to give you maximum screen space to make the comparison.

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More than the Scenery

Map1One of my concerns throughout my career has been to be able to communicate effectively with an audience through photography and writing. Early on I learned that this is not simply about being a “good photographer” or “good writer” but about looking for something that could connect with a viewer or reader.

One thing that connects with people is novelty or something fresh. One thing that tends to disconnect with people is when they see or read something expected, too common or what everyone else is doing. This is why you can have a beautiful, perfectly rule-of-thirds composed photo of something expected and most people won't spend a lot of time with it (except for those folks stuck in the rut of the rule-of-thirds at the camera club).

This is really true for publications. It always has been, but is especially true today because of the stresses on publications for literally their life. Yet, the more conservative and “standard” a publication gets, the less likely it will succeed. (There are nuances to that, but this is another story.)

Map2The photo at the top and this one above were done when I worked for the Minnesota Department of Transportation in the early 80s. I was the “photojournalist” for the information department. I enjoyed the job because it got me around the state, introduced me to many, many fascinating people, and I even got to photograph two governors and a senator up close and personal.

I had been doing a story on MnDOT's cartography department for the organization's monthly employee magazine. That magazine was important because it had a circulation of over 60,000 and helped communicate important things about MnDOT without relying on middle managers who all too often did not relay information because that gave them a sense of power. MnDOT was a bureaucracy, but a lot of its limitations came from the middle managers who carved out their own little fiefdoms.

The cartography department was an incredible place, with lots of people doing maps of projects and locations around the state. This group also had the responsibility of putting out the state map, which was a big job covering every little county road. Maps in those days were especially important because there was no GPS.

I learned that they were doing a pictorial, travel promotion section of the map that would cover the state. That sounded really cool to me, so I asked how I could get involved. A number of the photos had already been chosen, but they still were needed a few more, so I submitted some work and gained about half the photos of this section. That was the first year.

The second year, they came to me and asked me to do the complete section. I was thrilled! I could travel the state and find interesting photos of different areas that could be used in the map.

One area that was important was the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Lake Itasca State Park. I went up to the area to photograph it and some other places in the area.

But the problem was how to portray this? Photos of the headwaters of the Mississippi were common and mostly of the same place, the outflow from Lake Itasca. This area had a band of small rocks going across it which sort of defined the lake's edge. People came here to “walk across” the Mississippi all the time. And there were lots of those photos, too.

I needed something that would give a feeling for the headwaters of a great river that would be fresh and unexpected. I wanted people who picked up the map to look and wonder about the headwaters of the Mississippi.

I was there for only a short time. (Okay, now this was not a big publication with an unlimited budget. Even though I was in the same MnDOT and paid by the state, I had other duties so I had to plan my trips carefully.) I tried some sunset shots at the outflow of the lake, pretty, but nothing unusual.

The next morning it was foggy. I love fog and was excited about what this might offer. I went up to the outflow of the lake and got some shots of the lake, river and fog. Not bad – I thought that maybe this would do it.

Still, I stayed alert as I drove from the parking area near the lake. It was still foggy and that made the area look different, even a little mysterious, almost primeval. As I drove, I saw this piece the narrow stream that would be the Mississippi as it headed away from the lake through the park. This was interesting. It had potential to offer something different, a fresher look at the headwaters of the Mississippi. In some ways, the outflow from the lake
was misleading because it was a wide, shallow stretch of water. Here it narrowed down to the stream it would be for quite a ways, gradually gaining in size as it headed south through the state.

Map2I loved the way the trees and grasses faded back into the fog. I could not really park here and I was afraid of losing the conditions, so I grabbed my camera and hopped out of the car without my tripod. I did not want to take time to set it up and then have a ranger tell me I had to move before I got the shot (I did park to the side safely though!).

I knew that with the 24mm lens I was using on my 35mm film camera (probably a Canon AE-1 which we had at the state then), I could get away with a slower shutter speed. However, I could not use a really small f-stop and I was shooting Kodachrome 64 which only had an ISO of 64. I had to shoot nearly wide open. The 24mm at this distance immediately has a lot of depth of field, plus with the fog, as long as the foreground was sharp, it would not matter if the more distant areas were out of the range of my depth of field. The fog softened details and no one would be able to tell if the distant areas were tack sharp or not.

And this is the photo that ended up in the map.

Map3

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