Redbud above a rapid in the Merced River, California
My mother grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, in the hills above Panama City, running and playing all year in the tropical weather, watching sloths in the trees outside her bedroom window, shaking her shoes out each morning to make sure there were no scorpions inside.
When she was 13 years old her family moved to Queens, New York, but later, in the early years of her marriage, she and my father migrated to the outer suburbs, and once again she was surrounded by nature. She would often point out beautiful things she noticed to my brothers and me: the first buds of spring, a sunset, ice-coated branches, a bird singing, autumn leaves starting to turn…
Sand dunes at dusk, Death Valley
Sand dunes present an incredible array of shapes, forms, and textures, which makes them highly photogenic. When I first started photographing dunes I was fascinated by those abstract patterns, especially with low-angle light raking across them. And I still am.
But on our last visits to Death Valley, at the end of February and beginning of March, I realized that my tastes have evolved, and I actually prefer photographing the dunes in soft light, before the sun reaches them in the morning, or after the sun leaves them in the evening. At dawn and dusk the dunes can reflect beautiful colors from the sky, turning gold, blue, pink, or even purple. But also, and perhaps more importantly, they look softer. Under that light the dunes look like big, fluffy pillows of sand. They’re less harsh, and more inviting.
Rocks and ripples in the Merced River, Yosemite. Claudia, Charlotte Gibb, and I noticed some interesting patterns in the water while wandering along the river last year. I made a few compositions at one spot, then moved downstream, where I found Claudia and Charlotte looking at similar patterns with prism effects – little squiggly rainbows flashing across the water. I made a couple of photographs I liked last year, but then went back to that same spot last month, and this time found a sunlit patch of water surrounded by tree shadows, which gave the pattern a natural vignette. I needed a fast shutter speed to freeze the motion of the ripples, and a small aperture to keep everything in focus, so I raised the ISO to 1600 to get the shutter speed up to 1/125th sec. at f/16. The focal length was 200mm.
Landscape photographers usually hope for great conditions: a clearing storm, sun breaking through fog, a spectacular sunset, great fall color, dense patches of wildflowers, and so on.
I wouldn’t say it’s easy to make good photographs under such conditions. You still have to put yourself in the right place at the right time, find a good composition, and get the exposure and focus right. And all of those things take skill. But it’s certainly easier. In those highly-photogenic situations you just have to capture the gift that nature is giving you.
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.
“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!).
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.