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Category Archives: Closeup

I just read Samantha Chrysanthou’s article in the current online issue of Nature Photographers Online Magazine.  This got me thinking about some of the photographs that have really impressed me, at an almost visceral level, over the years.  Beyond being beautiful examples of composition and exposures, many of these photographs appeared so sharp (see the Cambridge in Colour tutorial for an excellent review of sharpness).  I just assumed I was partially responding to an essentially perfect focus and good glass.  After reading Chrysanthou’s article, however, I wonder if I was actually responding to the use of texture.  Photographs such as Ansel Adams’ “Moon and Half Dome” and Galen Rowell’s “Fall sunrise on the High Sierra over the Owens Valley” have such presence that one can almost feel oneself drawn into the images.  Is this at least in part because they are so textured?

This photograph of a coastal redwood is one that continues to resonate with me long after I made it.  The photograph is far from perfect.  I used an inexpensive lens at maximum zoom to make the capture.  Still, it is so full of detail, of place.

Perhaps much of what I thought was sharpness in good and great photography has actually been an attention to the detail of texture.

I was recently wandering through a farmers market while traveling.  Not wanting to miss an opportunity to shoot that day, I brought my camera with the intention of finding some gleaming example of California produce.  Instead, the best shot of the day was of these otherwise unremarkable tomatoes.  The light through the tress was just right, lending a deep saturation to the colors of the fruits.  Warm light can render the beauty of even the most mundane of subjects in the visual landscape.  It is important for us not to allow preconceptions to cloud our vision.

I tend to conceptualize travel as a form of active study.  Growth and understanding easily result when one is open to new experiences and ways of perceiving the world, if only one is willing to step beyond the self for but a moment.  Sometimes, the adventures of travel serve most importantly as reminders that there is far more to the Cosmos than that of which we are readily aware.  A recent visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium was one such event for me.  Watching the elegant and ethereal movement of these spotted jellies, it is impossible not to take solace in the vastness of what remains to be understood beyond my narrow scope of what is known.

One of the more enjoyable elements I have discovered over the past years is that the Gunflint Trail and the surrounding BWCA are full of natural surprises large and small.  An example are the wild lilies my family and I noticed while hiking Magnetic Rock Trail.  I personally think these blossoms rival any urban cultivar I have seen.

One of the high points of every summer for me is the blossoming of the rose bushes in front of my house.  The bushes were planted long before my wife and I purchased the house a few years ago, and they provide much pleasure to our entire family throughout the warmest months of the Minnesota summers.  I made the photograph below shortly after a rain shower; it is an example of the beauty that often results immediately before or after inclement weather.  It is during such transitions that nature and light can confound into ephemeral wonder.

When I look at this photograph, the lyrics of my favorite poem come to mind:

Give to me the life I love, let the lave go by me.
Give the jolly heaven above, and the byway nigh me.

– Robert Louis Stevenson

As a scientist, I seek to “know” the phenomena of my investigations in order to understand their workings.  There is an pleasure to discovering some bit of information, no matter how small, that was not previously known.  I experience a similar feeling when reading the literature related to my areas of academic interest.

As a nature photographer, I seek to “know” the subjects of my work on a more directly personal level.  My implicit goal is to recognize the subject of the lens on its own terms.  Doing so in the field fuels a sense of understanding much more affective than cognitive.

I can seek to know a flower, a mountain range, a prairie in different ways.  Each way brings with it a relevant delight.

I recently came across a quotation from Galen Rowell that resonates strongly with my own photographic ethos:

I’m exchanging molecules every 30 days with the natural world and in a spiritual sense I know I am a part of it and take my photographs from that emotional feeling within me, rather than from an emotional distance as a spectator.

This is a statement akin to the notion of biophilia, an inherent sense of connection with the natural elements of the Earth, expounded by E. O. Wilson.  Such an awareness is what largely motivates my photography.  As I have previously written, nature photography serves to enhance my interaction with nature by redirecting my attention away from the self and out toward the environment.  Through the lens, I am reminded that there is no such thing as the mundane.

Yet, there are times when I find it difficult to achieve a balance between observing through the lens, and simply experiencing the natural world without a goal to make a good photograph.  This is especially challenging when I am under a clear night sky distant from by the glow of urban lights.  Shall I attempt to make a photograph, or shall I simply gaze heavenward?  Perhaps the ideal is to learn to follow both paths at once.

I made the photograph below with a Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 Di LD Macro, an inexpensive lens by any standard.  Pixel peeping would undoubtedly reveal that the image quality would not be quite on par with the same photograph shot with Canon L-series or Nikon ED glass.  Yet, to most eyes under typical viewing situations, an online or physical print of this daffodil would demonstrate more than adequate image quality.

The point is expensive glass is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of good photography.  Photographs that move us are the result of a synergism between knowing how to meet the light, what to do with your camera when you get there, and sometimes just plain chance.

The season is turning to spring in the more northern climes, and evidence abounds.  I do not know if I was more pleased on a recent walk to see the return of ducks, or simply the free water in which they swam.  Gone for another year is the ice that locked away so much of this land.