Searching for the Inner Artist

Here’s a challenge for all the photographers out there, myself included: look through the most recent photos in your portfolio and ask yourself: “are these photos the product of my unique artistic vision or could any photographer have done this?” I’m not exactly speaking to the rampant copycat-ism that plagues the photography industry currently: the copied locations, copied compositions, and copied processing styles. Though those factors play a role in what I’m talking about. Instead, what I’m noticing more and more is a lack of unique vision in the photographic world today. When I look at an photographer’s portfolio online I find that more often than not I don’t see any unique imagery that speaks to who that person is as an artist. I see lots of beautiful pictures, but few that truly represent that individual’s view of the world. Has photography really become that interchangeable from person to person? Or are we becoming less willing to step outside the accepted norm of photography in pursuit of likes and thumbs-ups? Whatever the reason, I’m disappointed that so often if you take away the name from the online gallery of “Joe Schmoe Photography” you simply cannot tell who took the photos. When you listen to a new song on the radio you can often tell immediately who the artist is without hearing the DJ announce it. Why? Because great artists have a unique style that is identifiably theirs. And even if another artist covers the same song, the style is different, the approach is different, and the result is unique. Why don’t we have the same in photography? Instead it seems like we have a race to be as similar as possible.


I’m not saying I’m impervious to this, and I have my fair share of generic landscape imagery in my portfolio. But more and more I strive to represent the natural world through my own personal experience. My goal is to have a portfolio of images totally unique to me. Photos that only I could have taken, and that no one else ever will take. Not because I’m a better photographer than anyone else, but only because those photos are the product of my individual approach to image making, to experiencing the world, and to the way I like to share those experiences with others.

So again, I repeat my challenge to myself and to you: look at your portfolio. Does it represent you and only you? Or does your portfolio got lost in a sea of non-personal expression? When others look at your work will they say, “that’s a photo that only you could have taken.”? I hope so, and I hope you’ll join me in that pursuit.

Chime in with your thoughts in the comments!


2012 Retrospective

The seeds of 2013 are just beginning to take root and I find myself looking toward the new year with an odd mixture of nostalgia and excitement. Major change and growth is in store for me in 2013 and I am looking forward to meeting the new challenges and successes of the year. At the same time I’m looking back on 2012 and realizing what an incredible year it was, wishing I could relive parts of it. For me 2012 held many breathtaking moments, some unforgettable adventures, huge challenges, and ponderous frustrations. But despite a few setbacks 2012 was my most exciting and successful year as a photographer. And when I look back through the images I made in 2012 I can’t believe some of them exist in my portfolio, and I’m reminded how fortunate I am to be on this path. So I’d like to go back and take a look at the best and most memorable moments and photos from this year.

I’d also like to give my sincere thanks to all of my excellent friends and fans. I wouldn’t be where I am without your support. Cheers.


Best Battle with Poseidon: Tempest
Hole in the Wall Beach
Hole in the Wall Beach at sunset, Santa Cruz, California

It was a battle. Me versus the wind. For every blow I would land in the form of a good shot, the wind would land a punch of its own by covering me with salt spray, tipping my tripod up on two legs, or tumbling my backpack into a tidepool. We went back and forth all night until I snagged this image. Thinking I was the victor, I stuffed my filters in my pocket and tromped off to find another composition. Which is when the wind had its last laugh: plucking the filters from my pocket and depositing them somewhere in a thousand square feet of tide pool. I looked and looked, to no avail. With the rising tide, the relentless wind, and the near-invisibility of the filters I knew it was a hopeless task.

Coldest Legs of the Year: Mountain Light
Hooker Lake, Mount Cook National Park, New Zealand Hooker Lake icebergs, Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand

It turns out that glacial lakes are cold, really cold. Not that I noticed right away. I was wearing hip waders so I could stand thigh-deep in the just-above-freezing Hooker Lake while shooting icebergs and Mt. Cook at sunset. Because I wasn’t wet, I didn’t feel the cold right away. No, it was only after I’d been standing in the water for 40 minutes then tried to move that I felt it. My legs had turned to cold iron, and I could practically hear the creaks as I willed them to move back up to dry land.

Hottest Legs of the Year: Southern Splendor
Sealy Tarns, Mt. Cook National Park
Sealy Tarns, Mt. Cook / Aoraki National Park, New Zealand

The day after I froze my legs off in the glacial Hooker Lake I decided to go for another hike in Mount Cook National Park. The trail description didn’t make it sound bad at all: “Track starts out gently then ascends steeply to the Sealy Tarns.” A pretty unassuming description. Glib, even. But I learned my lesson the hard way: in New Zealand, when a trail guide says steep, it means steep. In truth it was a staircase from hell. To take my mind off my aching lungs and shaking legs I tried to count the number of individual stairs in the climb but I lost track somewhere in the two thousands. When I finally reached the top and saw this magnificent view at sunset, that endless trudge seemed like a small price to pay to witness the splendor of the Southern Alps.

Most Idiotic, Manic Moment of Brain-Addling Light: Wharariki Lightstorm
Wharariki Beach, New Zealand
Wharariki Beach, South Island, New Zealand

Having prioritized a few locations in NZ, I was prepared to spend up to five days at Wharariki Beach, shooting every single sunrise and sunset until I got something good. On day 2, barely 24 hours after I arrived at the beach, the sunset exploded and so did my brain. Seeing the vivid colors, pronounced lightbeams, and glassy reflections I ran around cackling like a lunatic.

Best “Something from Nothing” Shot: Watching the Watchers
Trail of the Gargoyles, Stanislaus National Forest, California
Stanislaus National Forest, Trail of the Gargoyles, Back lit pine trees

This was one of those days you know is just going to be a bust. I was running around, scouting for a workshop I was conducting as part of my artist residency in the Stanislaus National Forest in September, and ended up at the fascinating Trail of the Gargoyles at sunset. The skies were completely clear and I wasn’t expecting anything interesting to happen. Moreover, I couldn’t find a compelling composition of the Gargoyles themselves. I was about to pack it up and head home when the sun sank into a deliciously rich haze to the west and golden light scattered about the trees on the slopes below me.

Prettiest Lake, Fieriest Sunset, and Happiest Backpacker Moment: Sky Island
Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness
Thousand Island Lake, Ansel Adams Wilderness, Eastern Sierra, California

It’s possible that I’m cursed, or perhaps it’s that I only go backpacking in the summer, but I never see any good light in the backcountry. It’s always brilliantly blue skies. Any clouds that do form inevitably disappear by sunset. I’ve seen no shortage of gorgeous, crystalline lakes in the high Sierra, and also no shortage of megawatt sunsets, but never the two together. At least that’s the way it was until October when a friend and I packed into Thousand Island Lake in the Ansel Adams Wilderness east of Yosemite. I should say that with its innumerable islets and unforgettable perch beneath one of the Sierra’s most recognizable peaks, Thousand Island is surely among the prettiest lakes I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t need amazing light to be photographed well. But during the afternoon of our trek the clouds kept building and building, sticking around through sunset when they caught this red and orange explosion of light cascading over the Sierra. True to form I began whooping and hollering, and doing a little happy dance as the scene burned its way onto my SD cards and into my memory.

Most Alien Landscape: Motukiekie Galaxies
Motukiekie Beach, New Zealand
Motukiekie Beach starfish, West Coast, New Zealand

With its shrub-capped seastacks, endless tidal pools, and unusual animals, Motukiekie Beach in New Zealand is an otherworldly landscape. During my April NZ Adventure I visited the beach at sunrise to find hundreds of 12-legged seastars clustered together in “starfish galaxies.” I really wanted to enhance the surreal and alien feel of the place so I used a minute-long exposure to transform the incoming waves into mist.

Most Unexpected Shot: A Godley View
Southern Alps, New Zealand
Godley River and Lake Tekapo, South Island, New Zealand

When I took a scenic flight around New Zealand’s Southern Alps, I expected to come home with scenic photos of the Southern Alps. Um, duh. But whether it was the time of day of the flight, my position in the plane, or some other factor, I didn’t shoot any jaw-dropping mountain images. Instead, my favorite shot from the whole deal was this photo showing the weirdly bifurcated Godley River dumping its glacial silt into the tropical-blue waters of Lake Tekapo. Surprise!

Coolest Shot: The Light Within
Fox Glacier, New Zealand

Fox Glacier, South Island, New Zealand

A helicopter flight, a slot canyon of slightly luminous ice, and an afternoon spent wandering around on top of a glacier. Yup, pretty cool.

Favorite Accidental Shot: Seastar Sunset
Motukiekie Beach, New Zealand
Motukiekie Beach sunset, West Coast, South Island, New Zealand

This photo almost didn’t exist. I was scouting compositions in preparation for sunset when I plunked my tripod down in front of this pool and almost as an afterthought snapped off a single quick shot before walking farther down the beach. I must’ve been thinking too much about sunset to realize what I was looking at. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I was reviewing my images that this one popped out at me and I said “holy crap!”

Best “DAMN YOU, CLEAR SKIES!!” Shot: Zen Garden
Death Valley National Park
Ibex Sand Dunes, Death Valley National Park

As a photographer I dread blue skies. They make my style of photography so…..boring. Death Valley, one of the driest places in the US, gets so little rain that blue skies are almost guaranteed in the park. However, Death Valley also contains sand dunes, and sand dunes are one of the best things to shoot in clear weather, especially as the sun nears sunrise and sunset. The low angle of direct light creates intense patterns in the ripples of the sand dunes, the sort of thing that makes photographer me love life.

Favorite Shot of the Year: Wanaka Dreaming
Lake Wanaka, New Zealand
Lake Wanaka Willow, South Island, New Zealand

Any artist will tell you that it’s important to have vision. An idea that you can follow as you create. But in photography there is nothing so rare as having a photo actually match your vision. With the unpredictability of conditions, and physical limitations of your body and your gear it’s almost impossible for the reality of your photo to match what’s in your mind, especially if what’s in your mind was formed years before taking the photo. After first seeing an image of this tree back in 2010 or so I knew that I wanted to shoot it in fall with a long exposure to streak the clouds and turn Lake Wanaka into a silky dream. It wasn’t until 2012 that I even had a chance to attempt to make this photo. I booked my plane tickets for early April, hoping for fall color, then I headed straight for Wanaka when the first hint of clouds entered the forecast. Alas, I shot the tree all morning under completely cloudless skies. Disappointed, I started packing up but stopped to talk with a few tourists also checking out the tree. As our conversation wound down I noticed thick banks of clouds forming to the north and moving quickly to the south. Miraculously, even though the clouds began whipping by overhead there was almost no wind at lake level, meaning that after a full minute-long exposure the leaves on the tree were still and sharp in my photo. Seeing the result on my LCD I let out a whoop of joy and cracked a smile that didn’t leave my face until I got back on the plane to leave New Zealand some three weeks later.


Thanks for reading! Comments are very welcome.

Lamenting the Loss of Eloquence

I’m a positive guy, not normally prone to complaining. But today I have a bone to pick with all the photographers out there, myself included. It seems that while we continue to push the boundaries when it comes to capturing the world’s beauty in a visual way we’re sacrificing our ability to capture it in a linguistic way. Instead I am seeing an increasing number of wonderful photos paired with the most hum-drum and watered-down “extreme” adjectives such as “spectacular,” “gorgeous,” and the worst offender of them all “epic.” I also want to make it clear that I am as guilty of doing this as anyone.

I suspect we photogs have gone this route due to the fact that our images speak for themselves. After all, why eloquently describe what you saw when someone can look at your photo and see exactly what you did? But I can’t help but think of the times when I don’t have my camera or computer or phone handy to show my friends and family what I saw. And if they can’t see the scene, how else to describe it except via words. And sure I can say “it was an epic sunset” but that’s completely meaningless. That tells me nothing about what the sunset actually looked like. What about the colors, the shapes of the clouds, the quality of the light? I not only want to see the scene through your photo, I want to hear it through your words.

An example of some beautifully descriptive writing I came across a few days ago:

It might have been a vision of the polar regions; it undoubtedly felt like it. The mighty cloud ocean over which we were scudding resembled a polar landscape covered with snow. The round clouds contours might have been the domes of snow-merged summits. It was hard to conceive that that amorphous expanse was not actual, solid. Here and there flocculent towers and ramps heaved up, piled like mighty snow dumps, toppling and crushing into one another. Everything was so tremendous, so vast, that one’s sense of proportion swayed uncontrolled.

Then there were tiny wisps, more delicate and frail than feathers. Chasms thousands of feet deep, sheer columns, and banks extended almost beyond eye-reach. Between us and the sun stretched isolated towers of cumulus, thrown up as if erupted from the chaos below. The sunlight, filtering through their shapeless bulk, was scattered into every conceivable gradation and shade of monotone. Round the margins the sun’s rays played, outlining all with edgings of silver…

If you’re wondering what photographer wrote that, you’ll be disappointed. Those words were written by a pilot named Sir Ross Smith on his groundbreaking London to Australia trip by plane in 1919. And if a pilot can conjure such visions of a landscape, surely we photographers -who spend so much time surrounded by nature’s wonders- can strive to be his equal. So the next time you see an erupting mass of cumulus scattering the sun’s rays into shimmering pinks and scintillating yellows, think of Pilot Ross Smith and his flocculent towers, and write with eloquence.

I’m certainly going to try. What about you?

Leave your thoughts, comments, and ideas down below.

Why are there so few women (nature) photographers?

Walking around the Captiola Art and Wine Festival where I was exhibiting my own photography I noticed something: there are a lot of photographers these days. There were probably 10-15 landscape photographers exhibiting there as well. And at the close of the show on Saturday I realized something else: not a single one of them was a woman (at least that I saw). And reflecting upon my experiences with photo-sharing sites like flickr and 500px I noticed the same pattern: an overwhelming majority of landscape and nature photographers are guys. Of course there are women nature photographers out there, and some extremely talented and successful ones at that, but they are still a tiny minority.

The question I have is why? The way I see it, you have to have three things in order to want to become a landscape and nature photographer: 1) Access to the technology. 2) A desire to make art. And 3) A love of the outdoors. Yet none of these seems to be a valid reason for the small number of women photographers. After all, the explosion of digital technology has made photography accessible to everyone, and we are seeing DSLRs everywhere these days. And I know first hand how many women are involved in art; stroll the aisles at any art show and you will see women painters, women sculptors, women jewelers, and women printmakers. As far as the outdoorsy thing, I think I know just as many girls as guys who like to camp, hike, travel, and adventure. So why hasn’t the digital revolution produced more women landscape photographers?

I don’t have any answers to this question. It’s just something I’ve been pondering and I’d love to hear from the ladies out there: why aren’t more of you involved in nature photography? Let’s get a discussion going. Use the comment section to chime in.