Redwoods in Fog, Del Norte State Park, California
Redwoods in Fog, Del Norte State Park, California

Over the past months I’ve presented tutorials about some of the more technical sides of photography, like curves and camera calibration. These are important tools for realizing your vision, but today I want to turn in a different direction and talk about something less technical, but even more essential—inspiration.

Inspiration in photography can mean several different things. First, there’s the inspiration it takes to make a photograph—the leap of imagination that allows someone to capture a new, different way of seeing a subject, or create an original photographic concept.

Second, you can feel inspired when looking at a photograph. I’ve seen many images that have moved me in some way, perhaps by capturing a moment of great beauty, or a poignant interaction between people.

I’ve also felt inspired by a body of work and thought, “Wow, I want to do that! I want to make photographs that good.” In this case the inspiration is a motivator, something that spurs me to greater heights of creativity and imagination.

Many photographs and photographers have inspired me over the years. Seung Kye Lee lives in Norway, and might be the best landscape photographer you’ve never heard of. One of my favorite photographs of his, Rondane – Whispering Wind, has a great sense of space, depth, and scale—disorienting and surreal. Another favorite, Haiku, just portrays beautiful, magical light.

Next, for something completely different: Jerry Uelsmann. His dreamlike composite images—all done in the darkroom, by the way, not with Photoshop—are well known and widely collected. I had the privilege of meeting Jerry several times when he taught workshops for The Ansel Adams Gallery in the 1980s, and he is extremely nice and has a great sense of humor. He also has a large body of work from Yosemite, since he taught many workshops there. What I like about this image, Untitled, 1992,  is the integration of human and natural forms. I wish we could all be this connected with nature.

I hope that some of my photographs might be inspiring to others. But I want to tell you today that everyone can do it. Yes, this means you. Your photographs can move people. Your photographs can inspire people.

How? By being inspired yourself. If you’re not moved by what you’re photographing, then your photographs won’t move others. But if you can see deeply into your subject, if you can feel a connection with a place, a moment, or a person, then you might find that spark of insight or imagination that can help you create a great image.

Ansel Adams said, “I have made thousands of photographs of the natural scene, but only those visualizations that were most intensely felt at the moment of exposure have survived the inevitable winnowing of time.” Ansel was more articulate with a camera than a typewriter, but he meant that his best photographs were made when he felt inspired by the scene in front of him.

That’s been my experience too. It was certainly the case when I made the photograph of redwoods at the top of this post. Walking among those giant trees on that foggy morning I felt awestruck, humbled, and deeply connected with everything around me.

It’s easy to get caught up in our jobs and our day-to-day existence. We think about money, or a difficult in-law, or the latest crisis in the news. I think that’s why we love photography. We can’t often express ourselves at work, but we can with a camera. Photography gives us a creative outlet, a way of keeping in touch with our true, inner selves, the person that often gets forgotten while sitting in meetings or paying the bills. A camera can help you connect, or re-connect, with the things that are really important to you. Find out what those things are, what things matter most to you in the world, and you can make inspiring photographs.

What subjects move you and inspire you? What photographs or photographers have you found inspirational? I’d like to hear your thoughts, and see links to images that have inspired you.