Vision and Creativity

Can Intimate Landscapes Have a Mood?

Big-leaf maple in a burned forest, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Big-leaf maple in a burned forest, Yosemite

I’m always striving to make photographs that convey a mood. I want to do more than show what a place looks like; I want to capture what it feels like to be there at that particular moment.

It seems easier to convey a mood when photographing big landscape scenes during interesting weather. Just describing any kind of weather suggests a mood: sunny, cloudy, gray, overcast, rainy, foggy, misty, snowy, windy, calm – and so on. Combining weather with a compelling landscape almost automatically creates a mood.

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The Primeval Forest

"Twins" - sun breaking through fog in a redwood forest, northern California, USA

“Twins” – sun breaking through fog in a redwood forest, northern California. 25mm, 1/8th of a second at f/16, ISO 200. See the main text for a description of how I made this image.

Many people seem to have a deep, instinctive connection with redwood forests. I’m certainly one of them. Every year Claudia and I journey to the northern California coast prior to our redwoods workshop, and one of our first stops is at a favorite redwood grove. I’ll get out of the car, step onto the trail, and enter the forest. I’ll see the huge trees soaring into the sky. My nose will catch the familiar, earthy smell of the redwoods. I’ll hear the buzzing call of a varied thrush – the soundtrack of the redwood forest. I’m home.

We photographers often talk about gear, technique, light, composition, and image processing. And all those things are important. But I don’t think you can make truly meaningful photographs unless you feel a connection with your subject. More than once I’ve looked at a person’s portfolio of landscape photographs, found them so-so, then looked at images of their children – and thought they were fantastic. It was clear that while they liked nature and landscapes, they were truly passionate about their children (as they should be!).

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Stretching

Sea stacks, late afternoon, northern California coast, USA

Sea stacks, late afternoon, northern California coast

Learning photography is often a process of figuring out what works and what doesn’t. As beginners we usually learn what doesn’t work from our own images, and what does work from looking at photographs and photographers we admire. And that leads to a natural tendency to try to recreate the images and styles of others.

As we spend more time behind the camera we build up our own repertoire of ideas that work – for us. And naturally, when faced with decisions about where to go, or what light to look for, or what lens to use, we gravitate toward places, compositions, lighting situations, and techniques that we’ve used successfully before.

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Storm Clouds Over Mono Lake

Convey a Mood

Storm clouds over Mono Lake, CA, USA. 50mm, 20 seconds at f/8, ISO 100, ten-stop ND filter.

Claudia and I spent many days in Lee Vining over the last month-and-a-half. We’ve done three night photography workshops there, and the iPhone workshop Robert Eckhardt taught for us at Bodie.

Before one of our night workshops Charlotte Gibb and I headed to a favorite Mono Lake viewpoint, hoping for a photogenic sunset. When we first arrived we found some dramatic storm clouds and virga over the lake (virga is rain that doesn’t reach the ground). Later the sun broke through, soft of, off in the distance, and we even saw a faint rainbow. I photographed it all, but my favorite images were the early ones of those dramatic clouds. That wasn’t what I was expecting or hoping for, but it’s what I got, and I really liked the mood that sky created.

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The Camera in Your Pocket

Carmel Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA, USA

Carmel Mission, Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Even when a church or museum allows photography (as was the case here), a smartphone camera is less obtrusive than a big SLR.

Last month Claudia and I went to Carmel to assist our good friend Robert Eckhardt’s iPhone photography workshop. Robert is a highly creative photographer, a great instructor, and knows more about iPhone photography than anyone I’ve ever met. This is the second time we’ve done this workshop, and both editions have been really fun. Everyone (including me) learned a lot, and we had a great time photographing around Carmel and processing the images right on our phones.

Participating in this workshop made me reflect on how much smartphone photography has progressed in just a few years. Smartphone cameras have gone from novelty items to highly-capable devices, and a plethora of apps allow you to do just about anything imaginable to the photographs you take on your phone. (And some things that you would never imagine until someone makes an app for it.)

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Editing Your Work

Reflections along the Merced River, winter, Yosemite NP, CA, USAReflections along the Merced River, winter, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

Reflections along the Merced River, winter, Yosemite NP, CA, USA

It’s become a tradition on this blog to ask my readers to help pick my best images of the year, so on January 1st I’ll be posting the nominees for 2016 and asking all of you to vote for your favorites. It’s always fun to see what people pick!

Last year readers voted this snow scene into the top ten. It actually got the fifth-most votes, which was a pleasant surprise for an intimate landscape like this. (You can see last year’s nominees here, and the top ten here.)

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