Last week my wife Claudia and I visited our son Kevin in Arcata, California (he goes to Humboldt State University there). Arcata is just north of Eureka, along the northern coast of California, in redwood country.
Eleven years ago we’d camped in this area, and hiked a beautiful trail through the redwoods (nine-year-old Kevin complaining the whole way, especially on the steep climb back). The next morning I returned alone with my camera, found the forest enveloped in dense fog, and made one of my favorite photos ever.
I’d never gone back to that spot, but forecasters predicted patchy fog for last Wednesday morning, and it seemed like a good time to go. So we rose early and drove through fog, then sun, and back into fog. As we neared the trailhead I caught a glimpse of a roadside redwood grove that took my breath away. In the fog it was just so beautiful, so… primeval. I felt I’d traveled back in time a million years.
That feeling persisted as we walked along the trail, underneath 300-foot redwoods disappearing into the mist overhead. It smelled damp and earthy, and the only sounds were the soft, echoing calls of birds.
Claudia and Kevin continued down the trail while I became completely and happily absorbed in photographing redwoods and rhododendrons. I eventually found the spot where I’d made that photograph eleven years ago, and it looked exactly the same—the same trees, the same fog. But I wasn’t interested in repeating myself, and concentrated on capturing juxtapositions of redwoods and rhododendrons, and on areas where the sun was breaking through the mist. I made many photographs that morning; I’ll show you more in a later post. But my favorite is the one here, because to me it perfectly captures the mood of this place.
The feeling here is very different than in the photograph I made eleven years ago. This combination of sunlight and fog is more uplifting, where the eleven-year-old photo, with thick fog but no sunlight, is more mysterious. But it doesn’t matter to me, really, what the mood is—as long the photograph has one. While I’m happy to make photographs that are just pretty eye-candy, what I hope to do, strive to do, every time I pick up my camera is to convey some kind a mood—to show not just what something looked like, but how it felt to be there.
A frequent plaint from workshop students is that their photographs don’t capture what they see. But I think cameras do just that—they capture the appearance of anything you point them at. I think what these students really mean is that their photographs don’t convey what they felt at the time.
This is not surprising. Communicating a feeling through a photograph—a mere flat rectangle with lines, shapes, tones, and (sometimes) colors—is not easy. But it can be done.
How? Partly by understanding light, making strong compositions, getting the right exposures—in other words, developing your eye and technique. As you gain experience, you’ll learn how simple visual elements like lines or colors can convey feeling. (I write about this in my book, Digital Landscape Photography.)
Luck also helps. I found a great combination of light, weather, and subject last week. But this wasn’t just good fortune. I paid attention to the weather forecasts, and chose a location near to the coast, where fog was more likely. And yes, I also knew the rhododendrons would be blooming.
Another piece of the puzzle is how you feel about what you’re photographing. I talk about this in the “Photographs That Inspire” post that I linked to earlier—how you can’t expect to make images that inspire others unless you’re inspired yourself. And that means photographing things you’re passionate about. I was walking around this redwood forest in absolute awestruck wonder last week, and when you feel that strong a connection with your subject, it’s bound to show in your photographs.
In David duChemin’s eBook that I reviewed yesterday he writes about creating depth in photographs, and gives many practical suggestions for doing that. But he ends by talking about conveying “deeper emotions,” and saying, “Don’t look for depth, look for the things that move us.” Well said.
But here’s the most important, essential step to capturing a mood in your photographs: try. We often walk around with a camera looking for an interesting subject, or thinking about the exposure, or wondering what filter to use, and forget why we’re doing those things. For me, the overriding “why” is to communicate a feeling. This doesn’t happen every time I pick up a camera—far from it. But I try—I try to photograph things I’m passionate about, and I look for special situations where light, weather, and subject give me a chance to capture a strong mood. If you look for mood, you’ll find it.
WOW Beautiful!! All most does not look real! Great Job!
This is beautiful. The light really brings me into the image. Which grove did you go to?
That is quietly stunning. I really love it. Well done. And I appreciate your thoughts here on capturing mood too.
Excellent Michael. I try to convey these exact sentiments to the participants in my classes as well. I too get the same complaint, ‘My photos don’t look like what I saw’. Sometimes though the camera captures too much of what they “saw” and it gets lost in the confusion. I try to get them to “focus” their camera on what their attention is focused on. Sometimes that means they need to move in closer or zoom in. Then the technicals can come in like exposure. Thanks for the post, as it is nice to find others thinking along the same lines.
Oh, and that photo is quite magical. Kudos.
Amie, Phyllis, Jennifer, Youssef – thanks very much!
Amie, the place seemed otherworldly to me, so if the photo looks a little unreal that seems appropriate!
Youssef, glad we’re thinking along the same lines, and it sounds like you’re giving some sound advice. And I’m happy you like the photo.
Michael, this is, indeed, a wonderful photograph. It is very educational to see how one can
carve such a nice composition out of the bottom of a forest that is usually a mess of branches and undergrowth. From a practical point of view; do you think it would have been better without the two branches at the top of the left side, slightly obscuring the last tree on the left, or not? We often face this sort of cropping decisions so I am curious what you think.
It is also great to see you posting regularly once again.
Michael, lest you think me just an adoring fan lacking discriminatory capacity, I’m not going to say how richly, deeply, beautiful and evocative I find this image. That not being said, I like very much the little branches peeping in from the left edge of frame; they lead my eyes immediately to the big foreground tree, from where they travel and to which they return.
You invite critical comments of your images, but I feel that, while we each hold opinions and have preferences, I am deeply reluctant to criticise the works of those whose skills and knowledge far outweigh mine. Yet I would like to say I know what you’re talking about regarding atmosphere and feeling. It’s about connecting with our own feelings, connecting with what we’re seeking to convey visually and emotionally, letting go of achieving, playing, being ‘In the Moment’. That’s the joy, the really satisfying experience, the utter surprise of it, yes?
Please write more for others to learn about how to relax, focus, connect. It’s so essential.
Lenya, thanks very much. As for the two branches in the top left, yes, it would be cleaner without these. But I don’t want to crop the left side to eliminate those branches, as I’d lose that redwood trunk, which I think is a vital part of the composition. And those two branches echo the the branches along the right edge, which helps balance the composition, so I don’t mind them. Besides, you’re never going to find perfection in a cluttered forest like this!
Vivien, thank you very much for not saying how much you like this photo! 🙂 Thanks also for chiming in about the branches on the left. And you’re right on the money with your comments about connecting with your feelings. I know that gets a little too touchy-feely for some people, but it’s an essential element to making photographs that are really meaningful to you personally, much less to others. I’ll give some thought to your last sentence, and what I could say about this subject. I’m no expert, but I’m sure I can come up with something. Thanks for the suggestion!
I really like how that spill of light highlights the rhododendron. The fog really accentuates the mood here. As always, wonderful job on simplifying the image.
Sometimes I get so caught up with the scene in front of me that I don’t notice the stray twigs/branches…Or sometimes I do and no matter what, I can’t change my comp to eliminate them.
I find your words and work very inspirational, thank you. To me, the important take-away is not particularly the photograph itself (I like it very much, by the way!): it is that it is very difficult to see any line between Michael and redwoods and ferns and rhodies, or between photographer and subject. To say it another way, the image conveys a mysteriousness that to me is actually beyond words.
In my work, I think of this “coming together” as an example of a perfect congruence which we cannot, for the life of us, conjure up or in any other way make happen. However, we can do lots of things to put ourselves in the position to receive the gift of this harmonious moment, and share it widely.
I completely agree about passion…that which urged you to spend the time and energy and braincells to remember the place eleven years later, go back there and put yourself in the possibility of seeing things with new eyes…fantastic!
In reply: You’re most welcome to my ‘not liking’, Michael 🙂
‘…a little too touchy-feely for some people…’ eh? Hmmm… Perhaps such people do not make a distinction between the sickening emotionalism of sentimentality and the authenticity – not to mention personal empowerment – of knowing and experiencing one’s feelings in harmony with one’s intellectual functions. At almost 66 years of age, I do know this because I learned it along the way – and not without times of painful realisations about just how cut-off I had been in an achievement-driven, intellect-worshipping society.
I really hope that those of your students and readers who want to learn how to create the kinds of images you make and have discussed above recognise that, without their feeling involvement, they can, at best, only achieve technical excellence. I hope they can learn from you, who do not strike me at all as a touchy-feely person. Quite the opposite, in fact!
As for expertise, I believe you have clearly shown that you possess the necessary; the challenge would be to articulate it. I think Stacey, above, has done that rather well.
Thanks for sharing with us 🙂
Vivienne, thank you. I’ve trained myself to look for those stray branches that can clutter up a composition – only because such strays have ruined too many of my images in the past. But there are always situations where no matter what you can’t get rid of that annoying clutter. That’s just life as a photographer!
Stacey, wow – very well put! The line between photographer and subject is thin indeed. And if you want to make expressive photographs, you want to make it as thin as possible – to connect with, even empathize with you subject. And I also understand what you’re saying about not being able to make these kind of things happen, but try to put yourself in the right place, mentally as well as physically, to allow them to happen.
Vivien, to reply to your last sentence first, I agree that Stacey said this very well – maybe she should write this!
>I really hope that those of your students and readers who want to learn how to create the kinds of images you make and have discussed above recognise that, without their feeling involvement, they can, at best, only achieve technical excellence.
Well I think you’re right, and I’m sure most can recognize this. I think highly of my readers in general!
>I hope they can learn from you, who do not strike me at all as a touchy-feely person. Quite the opposite, in fact!
Hmm… maybe I need to be more touchy-feely? 🙂 Seriously though, I try not to overdo this kind of stuff, so that when I do venture into this nebulous territory my words might carry a little more weight.
Michael, thank you for your detailed reply. I have a sense that my comments have perhaps caused some offense. I sincerely hope not. Your respect for your students and readers is patently obvious and I’m sure most do recognise the need for a feeling connection. Reading your post again, I realise that I misunderstood your meaning; I thought you were saying that some students were not ‘feeling’ what they were photographing and disappointed with the results. Please accept my apologies. I need to go to bed earlier and not read posts when dog-tired (but that is no excuse)!
As for ‘touchy-feely’, I don’t know about the USA but it carries a very negative, derogatory connotation here in Australia and is expressed with distaste in reference to persons who are considered overly emotional and insincere, especially those who don’t respect physical boundaries (hence, ‘touchy-feely’). It isn’t used in reference to having feelings, which is why I said I thought quite the opposite of you.
Please accept my warmest regards,
Fantastic work, Michael! You are true craftsman! I would love to be there when you are doing what you do so well! The only thing missing are Nature’s sounds and smells! Can you work that into your Works, please? Bob and Monika Clark
Viven, rest assured you caused no offense whatsoever! No apology necessary. I appreciate your thoughtful comments here. As for “touchy-feely,” perhaps there is a more negative connotation in Australia, and I don’t think we use it in reference to physical boundaries, but it’s not usually considered a compliment here. In my original comment I used it to try to convey (not very well) the idea that sometimes photographers are uncomfortable discussing the emotional side of photography, as opposed to talking about f-stops and shutter speeds.
Bob, Monika, thanks very much! I’ll work on the Sound- and Smello-Vision thing. 🙂
Thanks, Michael 🙂
You were in my thoughts yesterday as I attempted a new challenge, a roadside creek running through a forest of mostly young Cedar trees. Apart from the residual wreckage of recent serious flooding, and a sudden change from the beautifully diffuse light of extensive fine overcast to shrieking sunlight, there was the problem of…trees. Arthritis and I experienced a few slightly touchy feelings about the trees, Michael.
…that is, about the difficulties of photographing trees in a forest, not the trees themselves! 🙂
No, of course not the trees themselves! Lol Vivien.
Yeah, me too, Michael 🙂
Stunning capture here – I love the mystical feel of this place. Looks more like Norway than California.
Thanks very much London! California is such a diverse state – I’m lucky to live here.
amazing photo – it looks like an oil painting. Quite an eery picture, like something from werewolves in London.
Werewolves in London – LOL! Glad you like the photo.
Two quick comments.
1. I love your previous “favorite photograph” from the redwoods, but this new one speaks to me even more strongly. Lovely work, Michael.
2. Your final paragraph touches lightly on a potentially huge topic, namely how to approach your subjects as a photographer. There are all sorts of things wrapped up in this ranging from questions of how and whether we care about our subjects, what we do to “find” photographs worth making, and in the case of landscape/nature photographers a bunch of questions about what we want our photographs to do.
I think you probably have a good have dozen potential blog posts right there in the final paragraph.
1. Thanks very much! Glad you like it.
2. Hmm… I’ll have to give that some thought. Then again, it seems like you have some ideas about this, so maybe you should have a crack at it. 🙂
i am still a newbie in photography. I am very thankful that there are people like you who share their knowledge.
Pao, thanks for reading! If people like you appreciate what I’m doing here, that makes it worthwhile.
I spent 50 years in Arcata, most of that time teaching Genetics at HSU. Countless times, I’ve walked and hiked where you did, feeling the grandness and wonderment of the redwoods. I left Arcata almost 2 years ago and moved to Roseville, a rather desolate and uninspiring place, but good for old people.
I miss Arcata. Your photos did wonders for me.
Jim, I understand why you miss Arcata. It’s a wonderful place, albeit a rainy one at times. But that’s why the redwoods like it.
Michael, I found myself suddenly here after following advice and links from your Jan. 25, 2013 posting about depth, enjoying that image and several after that, and when I landed here it was as if someone beamed me down to a private paradise for a few moments. Light, life normally unseen, mood, inspiration – all worked to make me feel as if I’d just stumbled onto this place myself and then stayed for awhile to just savor it. It’s one of my favorite images now. Thanks.
Thanks very much Andrys! This was a magical day for me, and I’m glad that comes through in the photograph.
Love the drama of the photo. Why did you need 10-stop ND filter?
Thanks Greg. Using the ND filter was the only way to get a 20-second exposure time without overexposing the photograph.
Thanks, Michael. I just bought my first ND filters, so am experimenting with them to understand how to use them.
Hope to take one your workshops next year. Two connections: I went to Humboldt State and my wife was a ranger in Yosemite.