My Book! PLUS: Why You Should Start a Personal Photography Project

My Book! PLUS: Why You Should Start a Personal Photography Project

So over the last couple of months, throughout this whole coronavirus lockdown, I’ve gotten not a small amount of messages from people who have been feeling a little bit befuddled by this whole situation. They haven’t been feeling that inspiration, right? It’s really hard to want to get out and shoot when the government is telling you, no, you gotta stay at home. And I totally get that. This whole situation is just nuts. It’s so weird. It’s hard to know what to do. Those kinds of uncertainties. Don’t leave a lot of room for our creative hobbies. A lot of times. So people have been sending me these messages and saying, well, how can I stay creative? How can I stay inspired? How can I keep shooting during this weird coronavirus lockdown? When I can barely leave my house? And the answer that I always give to every single person is the same start a photography project.

And this could be anything from a three 65 selfie project to taking pictures of your dog every hour of the day, or exploring your backyard from, you know, three inches off the ground. It really doesn’t matter what it is. The idea is you just create a project and that project gives you structure. That structure gives you a reason to shoot. It’s kind of like going to the gym. A lot of times, it’s hard to motivate to actually leave the house to get there. But once you do it, once you just leave the house, you drive to the gym, you get on your Spanx. That’s what I work out in any way. Then, you know, you get your workout done. And the photography projects are the same thing. You have. The structure takes so many questions out of the whole situation. You don’t have to ask yourself, should I be shooting?

Where should I go? What’s the weather going to be like, is it going to be good? You know, all those things that we second guess ourselves about all the time, those go away, you have the project. The project means you shoot. And as soon as you start shooting, I guarantee you inspiration is going to Stripe. So for me, I decided to take my own advice and start a photography project. And what I’m doing is documenting this amazing place mono link. And what I’m going to do is I’m going to create a coffee table photo book that had project in my head for a couple of years now. And I’ve kept putting it off and putting it off. I’ve been chasing photos in New Zealand and South America and things like that. But now I’m here. I’m here in California. And I feel like there’s absolutely no better time to get working on this project.

Now the honest truth is I really have no idea what I’m doing. I’ve never made a photo book before. I don’t know where to begin, nor do I have any idea what I actually want the theme of the book to even be it can’t just be pictures of mono Lake. No, no. It has to have some kind of a defining structure, but the fact that I don’t know how to make a book and I don’t know what the theme of the book is. Honestly, I don’t even care about that right now. I trust that that stuff is going to appear in time. What’s important to me right now is simply to have a reason to get outside the motivation to go shoot. And the reason that I chose Mona Lake is it is an utterly fascinating place. And I think that most landscape photographers, especially if you’re from North America, you’ve heard of Mona Lake, but probably the only thing you’ve ever heard about Mona Lake is the famous tufa towers, which are just down the beach right over there.

But the truth is mono Lake is so much more than just tufa towers. It also has volcanic craters and resident wild Mustangs and freshwater marshes and nesting ospreys. It is the world’s largest breeding colony for California goals, which are these guys right out here. It’s a major destination for migrating birds of all kinds. And it has a really incredible history that goes along with it, not just the natural history of this place, but also the human history that the fact that the Lake level a hundred years ago was maybe a hundred feet higher than it is today is all because of human intervention. The water in the creeks that flow into mono Lake are being diverted now into the LA aqueduct to provide drinking water for the city of Los Angeles. So the fact that we can even get to these amazing places like the two photographers is due in large part to the human interactions with this place.

And even on top of that mono Lake is so emblematic of the environments that you find here within the Eastern Sierra, that if you ever want to understand the ecosystems in this part, California, you have to understand mono Lake. So that desire to understand, to probe a little bit deeper and to discover these places around the Lake that are new to me is a huge part of what’s driving this project. And the reason that I’m telling you guys this now is because the project is still in its infancy. Like I said, I haven’t even figured out what direction I want to take the book yet, but I figure if I tell you guys, if I tell thousands of people, then I have that accountability. Like I said, I have just started the project. I’m only a couple of weeks into it, but I’ve already uncovered some amazing stuff, some incredible moments and some really unusual places that I’d never seen before.

Even though I live only 30 minutes down the road from the Lake last night, for example, I went to a place I’d never been before PanAm crater. And I climbed up to the top, the check out all the cool volcanic rock that’s in the area. And it provides this monumental overlook of the entire mono basin. And there were thunderstorms flowing through the Northern skies and rain falling through the Southern skies. It was a pretty awesome moment that I got to experience just because of this project because of the impetus to get out of the house and shoot, or like a week ago when I was driving around the East side of the Lake through the eight inches of sand on those back roads. And I stumbled across herds of hundreds of horses grazing on the grasses or when I was photographing at South tuba, the most classic spot here at mono Lake, but there’s always something different happening in the sky.

And as the sun went down that particular night, this crazy beam, this column of light came a repelling out of the Western sky. And I’m fortunately I was in a terrible place to get any good photos of it. I have no good compositions of this, but I want to show you the shot anyway, just because of the unusual quality of light. So these experiences are coming to me and this deeper understanding is starting to develop now, just because of this project, the reason that I’m here tonight in this spot, kind of in the middle of nowhere, is to try to experience another one of those unusual, incredible moments. You see the full moon is going to be rising over there over South tufa in about two minutes. So that’s why I got this big beast ready to go. Now it’s pretty cloudy over there. I don’t actually know if I’m going to be able to see the moon as it comes up over the two foot, but there’s a chance. And that chance is all you need to be excited about in photography. So I’m really excited about this. I’m going to keep you guys updated as the project develops, as I figure out what the book’s going to be about and how I’m actually going to make it. So until the next video have fun and happy shooting. 

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7 Life Lessons Learned Through Photography

A little history about myself: I don’t have any professional training or education in photography. I went to school for aerospace engineering and didn’t even pick up a serious camera until three years after I had my BS. Everything I know about photography I’ve learned through seven years of passionate practice, and lots of lessons from the school of hard knocks. Along the way I began to realize just how many of those glib, overly-simplified sayings that corporations use to get you to buy their crap are actually true. Here are seven of my favorite cliche phrases that turn out to be pretty great tenets to live your life by.

Lesson 1: Image is Everything!

(i.e. the Peter Lik school of thought)

For those of you who haven’t heard of Peter Lik, he’s probably the most commercially successful landscape photographer of all time. A few years back he traveled to New England for the fall color change, took a single frame of some pretty trees reflected in a pond, made a single print of that shot, and sold that print for a million dollars. Yup, a million. He has galleries in major destination cities like Honolulu, Aspen, Vegas, and Miami, and each is immaculately presented: the photos are huge and beautifully lit, with ridiculous wow factor. The galleries reek of upscale chic and you can expect to shell out at least a couple grand if you want to hang his work on your wall.

Personally I’m not a huge of fan of Lik’s. He’s a decent photographer but often I find his colors over-saturated and feel that he could do more with his compositions. And the guy himself is uh, somewhat over the top. He presents himself as an extreme wilderness adventurer with an unparalleled dedication to his craft, which may be true if you come at it from a standpoint of an armchair photographer, or it may not if you come at it from the standpoint of someone like Marc Adamus, who just spent weeks by himself backpacking and photographing in the Yukon Territory. But as much as Peter Lik’s extreme persona rubs me the wrong way, I admit to having a huge amount of respect for his business acumen and marketing savvy, because he understands one thing very clearly: how you present yourself to the world is how the world will see you.

I’m not saying you have to be a caricature of awesomeness to be successful in life. I am saying there are some fantastic lessons to be learned here, one of the most important of which is how you value yourself. Do you approach your work with an attitude of self worth or self doubt? Let me give you an example. When I was first starting to do art festivals I had the most rinky-dink, cheap booth setup I could make: a back wall for displaying framed prints and a handful of wooden boxes for displaying matted prints.

First go at an art show booth - please pity me!

What this setup said was, “ooh, I’m just starting out, please pity me!” It smacked of self doubt. But I learned my lesson, and now my booth says, “I respect myself, I respect my work, and so should you.”

Professional art show booth - respect me!

Another great example for all the artists out there is pricing. The tendency is to say “I’m just starting out,” or “I’m just a beginner,” or “I’m not trying to get rich from this,” and to set your prices super low. And true, if I can make a 12×18 print for $6 and sell it for $7, well then I’ve made a profit. But what does that say about how I value my work? And how other people should value my work?

A second great lesson to take away from this is not just how your present yourself, but what you present in the first place. I once heard that the difference between a professional and amateur photographer is that the professional takes way more bad photos. But the question is, what photos does the professional show? Consider two guys of equal talent. One shares all the photos he takes, good and bad. You know what happens? He builds a reputation for himself as a mediocre photographer who occasionally produces good work. The second guy is brutal in his self-editing and only shares his absolute best stuff. Even though he’s not a better shooter than the first guy, he builds a reputation as an excellent photographer. Here are two sets of images I took. What does each set say about me as a photographer? The first says that I shoot a random mish-mosh of stuff, not that impressive. But the second set says “here’s a guy who takes seascape photography very seriously.”

What does this jumbled portfolio say about you?

Seascape photography portfolio

So what’s the moral of the story here? You don’t have to be disingenuous and pound your chest, saying “I’m the greatest thing since sliced bread!” But if you value yourself, your work, what you do, and you show people that then people will value you too. And that goes for life as well as art.

Please leave your own thoughts in the comments below.

A Mongolian Princess and the Myth of Saving Time

I have a huge problem: I’m constantly trying to save time. Everything I do I do as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’m an incorrigible list maker and when I’m on a roll I check off my tasks like a jackhammer: wham, bam, thank you ma’am. I have apps that save me time, gizmos that save me time, and 31 years of life experience to save me time. I save so much time I should be drowning in the stuff.

So where is it all? And if I have so much time why do I find I’m constantly in a rush, constantly hurried, and constantly thinking about what I have to do next? Simple: Because the idea of saving time is complete and utter bullshit, excuse my French.

The idea of saving time as it’s come to mean in western society is all about finishing your tasks as quickly and efficiently as possible. Which is not inherently a bad thing. But the myth that’s propagated is that you can take the extra time you’re “saving” and put it toward good use, like spending quality time with family and friends, or writing that great American novel. The reality is that this focus on goal-oriented efficiency is creating a cultural mindset that says we always have to be getting something done. And if you always “have to be getting something done” then you don’t have a lot of time to actually enjoy your life. But far worse, the time-saving myth places more emphasis on finishing your current task and moving onto the next thing than on doing the task itself. And in my opinion that’s an idea that’s antithetical to happiness, because it never allows you to be fully in the moment. Even if you are doing something you love, you will be thinking about what else you should be doing and what you need to be doing next, leaving the experience hollow.

I’m hardly the first person to wax philosophical on this subject (in fact, if you want a more entertaining and eloquent exploration of the topic, I highly recommend you check out a book called “Momo” by Michael Ende, the same dude who wrote The Neverending Story). But I was reminded of the importance of this idea recently when reading the adventures of Maynard Owen Williams, who was the National Geographic photographer on board one of the first trans-Asiatic car expeditions in the early 1900’s. In central Asia he ran into a polyglot Mongol princess who had these pithy words to say to the western explorers:

You are men of auto, railway, radio. You find this a backward land, without roads, speed, a free press, a balanced budget, sanitation, or familiar forms of justice. Hence you pity the Chinese. But…[your] progress is chaotic, at least in its impact on orientals, because its spiritual values are not realized. We Mongols are emancipated. ‘A good horse and a wide plain under God’s heaven,’ that’s our desire. And we realize it…

Reflecting on those words made me realize that I spend so much energy and effort completing my more definable goals (cleaning out my inbox, getting the Christmas shopping done, doing the laundry) that I often lose sight of my spiritual goals. And no, I’m not talking spirituality in terms of religion (for the record, I’m an staunch atheist). I’m talking about realizing spiritual goals like feeling satisfied and happy, being at peace, and feeling free.

What I love about that Mongol princess’ words is how simple the desire is: “A good horse and a wide plain under God’s heaven.” There’s no mention of time, and I think that’s brilliant. None of the “I want to be a millionaire by the time I’m 40,” or “I want to retire by 65” stuff we talk about in the west. Time is irrelevant to happiness. So I find myself asking the question: What’s my version of that good horse? To tell you the truth I’m not exactly sure, but I know it doesn’t involve rushing around being as efficient as possible.

I’m amazed how much more peace and freedom I feel now at the end of this article than when I began writing it. As the ideas rattle around more and more in my head I fundamentally feel the truth in them: Focus on the moment at hand, whether it’s a long moment or a short one. Don’t worry about what you have to do next until you’re actually doing it. And stop trying to save so much time. As the Mongol princess said, that’s emancipation.

~Josh

What do you think: do you agree or is this hippy dippy crap and the real key to happiness is efficiency and productivity? Do you have a version of the good horse? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

This is part 1 in a series of articles I’m writing to explore this and related ideas. Stay tuned for part 2: “Being a photographer helps you live in the moment, but which moment?”

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.

Not everything is Epic, and that’s okay

Natural Bridges State Beach in Santa Cruz at Sunset

Not everything is Epic, and that’s okay. Are we in such a rush to produce The Next Great Image that we forget that conditions aren’t always astounding? Lackluster sky? No problem, we say, I’ll just add a heaping helping of contrast in photoshop. Now it’s Epic! Forest colors aren’t quite as rich as we hoped? No worries, I’ll just bump the saturation slider. Now it’s Epic!

Read more

The Art of Nature Photography

Is nature photography an art form? If you asked that question among the photographic community, I believe you’d get an unequivocal “YES!” as an answer. That nature photography is a form of art is something the I and many other photographers believe fully. But what if you asked that question among the general public? Or more importantly, among brand new, aspiring photographers? What would they say?

I’ve been asked multiple times if what I do is art, the question usually flowing to the tune of something like: “You take pictures of something pretty that’s already there. How is that art?” A logical offshoot of this is: “In fact, if all you’re doing is creating a copy of something pretty and calling that art, isn’t the original landscape a piece of art as well?”

I’ve actually written about this at length before in this essay, so I’ll keep my comments brief for now. Suffice it to say that every beautiful place affects each of us in some way and instills in us some emotion, whether it be awe, admiration, wistfulness, or happiness. And every time some one takes a photo of one of these beautiful places, he is trying to capture some of the emotions he felt in being there. But how many times have you seen a photo of a place and heard the photographer tell you: “If only you’d been there! If only you could’ve seen it with your own eyes. Then you would’ve felt what I felt!” So what happened to all that emotion and feeling? Where did it go and why is it lost from these photographs?

That’s where art comes in. A piece of art is able to convey emotion and feeling. And more than that, true art is able to convey the exact emotions and feelings that the artist intended. A beautiful landscape itself may convey many emotions to many people, but in a piece of art, an artist is able to show one thing to everyone, to convey a specific meaning and significance that might otherwise have not been noticed (this is why the natural world is not art in and of itself: it is not a conscious attempt to convey specific thoughts, feelings, and emotions). And this is the difference between just a photo and a piece of art: a simple photo might show you what a place looks like, but a piece of photographic art will show why that place is meaningful, and will leave the viewer charged with the emotion of the place.

This is why nature photography is most certainly an art form. A good nature photograph has the power to stop us in our tracks, to drop our jaws, and to leave us feeling amazed at the beauty in the world. But the ability of nature photography to do this doesn’t just come from pointing a camera at something pretty and pressing the shutter. It comes from an artist’s careful consideration of a scene, from experience, technical know-how, and aesthetic sensibilities.

The reason I specifically singled out new, aspiring photographers in the first paragraph of this essay is that they need to understand that producing art is all about making creative decisions. As I mentioned above, a beautiful landscape might affect us all in a slightly different way. In order to produce a piece of art, an artist must first understand how the landscape is affecting him. Armed with that knowledge, he can begin to make creative decisions about how to capture a scene in order to convey the emotions he wants to convey.

Naturally those creative decisions manifest themselves in the way we set up our cameras: aperture, shutter speed, ISO, composition, and so on. These are the landscape photographer’s tools in creating a piece of art and will be the subject of many follow-up posts.

That’s not what it looks like . . .

Earlier today I showed a friend of mine my most recent photo, taken at sunset at a place called Abalone Cove.

Now, my friend has been to this place before, and the first words out of his mouth were: “That’s not what it looks like.” In good fun, he also made some comments about me creating a “fake world” by blurring the water and the clouds. I gotta say, this irked me a little bit, but at the time I couldn’t think of how to respond to such a flat statement, so I didn’t say much of anything.

But his words weighed on me over the evening and made ponder exactly what I capture as a photographer. The knee-jerk idea that immediately comes to mind is that I strive to capture a moment in time, the “true feeling” of a given instant. But now I’m struggling with that statement because I think it’s hard to define exactly what it means. Delving slightly into the semantics of it, I’m first forced to wonder exactly what an “instant” really is and how the idea of an instant relates to what a camera is actually capable of capturing.

Looking at the technical side of things, what happens when you press the shutter button on a camera is that a sensor (I shoot digital) records all the photons that hit it as long as the shutter is open. So lets say that I’m shooting hummingbirds and I want to freeze the motion of a bird’s wings in midair; I’m going to set my camera up to have as quick of a shutter speed as possible, hopefully something in the 1/4000 sec range. That means the camera’s sensor is going to record all the photons that hit it during a length of time which is equal to 1/4000 sec: a fraction of a second, in all meanings of the term. Now let’s say I’m planning on shooting a meadow on a bright but cloudy day; I’m going to stop down my aperture for maximum depth of field with the result that my shutter speed might slow down to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1/100 sec; still a fraction of a second by most people’s reckoning. Both of these shots capture what is arguably an instant’s worth of time, and yet the second shot was 40 times slower than the first! In the time span of the second shot, I could theoretically have captured 40 images of the hummingbird. Does that mean the second shot wasn’t a single instant, but rather 40 instants strung together? In my mind, it’s still a single instant, because what is the difference between the two? In both cases, the sensor is recording photons for a given length of time; the second just happens to be arbitrarily longer than the first.

But hold on then; what if we draw this out farther along the same logical lines? If a factor of 40 increase in shutter speed doesn’t destroy the meaning of an instant, what about another 50-fold increase? Now we’re at a shutter speed of 1/2 sec. Are we starting to lose the meaning of the word instant? Starting to get a little hazier, methinks. What if we go out another 500 times to an exposure of just over four minutes? I think most people would agree that four minutes is hardly “an instant,” but where does the dividing line go up between “instant” and “non-instant”? When I look at things like this, I’m forced to say that I can’t arbitrarily create a point where shutter speeds faster than X capture an instant, and shutter speeds slower than X don’t capture an instant.

Which means I have to look elsewhere for the definition of the word “instant” as it relates to photography, and especially to my field landscape photography. The obvious thing which comes to my mind is feeling. Throughout the day, the feeling, tones, and mood of any given scene change due to variations of the light illuminating that scene. And that’s really what any photographer is trying capture (whether he knows it or not): the feeling of a certain place while he was there in person, experiencing it. So doesn’t that really help us define what an instant is? Let me give it a shot: an instant is a duration, during which the feelings, mood, and emotions of a scene don’t change. Whether that be 1/4000 sec or 4 mins, each shutter speed is designed to capture the individual feeling of that specific length of time, that instant. If the feel of a place doesn’t change over a period of time, who cares if that time is short or long? I’m forced to the conclusion that both can be “instants.”

Something else my friend’s comment made me think of is the purpose of art. I’m sure I could wax philosophically about that subject for posts on end, but I’ll sum up my views on the subject as briefly as I can. In my opinion, the point of art is to show us the world around ourselves, but not just in a way that we recognize it as the world. Art should peel back the layers so that we see or feel something new about the world. We should walk away from a piece of art slightly different people than we were when we walked toward it, having learned something, or seen some hidden truth about the world.

And I feel that in that respect, landscape photography is no different from any other art. Granted that landscape photography is in general a very true-to-life kind of art, but that doesn’t mean that it should mimic the real world as closely as possible. If that were the case, the robotic camera on top of the Google StreetView car would be creating masterpieces every day. But it isn’t, and that’s because art requires an artist to make creative decisions about how to interpret the world in a way that brings something new to the table, even if that something new is simply the beauty and wonder of a given place.

For the photo above, it wasn’t taken by a robot whose job was to obtain an image which mirrored real life as closely as possible. It was taken by me after I made specific creative decisions about how to interpret the beauty and emotion of Abalone Cove. And to be completely honest, this final image doesn’t bear a remarkable resemblance to any frozen moment in time at the cove that evening. If that were the case, I should have captured a massive wave crashing on the rocks in front of me and sending spray high into the air. And while a photo like that might better have conveyed the drama of the sea that night, it wouldn’t get across the point that I wanted to make about the motion of the sea and the clouds, the swirling whites of the water, the almost-surrealism of the constant swells and gushes of water on the rocks. And in truth, I also really wanted to see what would come out after a very long exposure. But regardless of the actual choices I made and the reasons behind them, my point remains the same: I interpreted this place and its emotions and made the artistic choices I felt necessary to convey those feelings in an image.

Taking this back to my friend, now I know I’ve got a much better reply if he ever says “that’s not how it looks” to me again: Am I simply trying to capture how a place looks at a moment frozen in time? Absolutely not, because the wonder and beauty and feeling of a place is contained in so much more than just the way it looks. Rather I’m trying to capture how a place feels in the instant that it feels that way, to capture my emotions in a way that relates to the beauty of the scene, and to use my camera as an interpretive tool to convey those feelings to a greater audience. I think that rather than create “fake worlds,” as my friend suggested, I’m really trying to reveal the hidden truths.