Mount Cook’s peak from Mount Cook Village, South Island, New Zealand, 2015. To make mountains look massive, towering over the landscape, a standard approach is to photograph them from miles away with a lens in the normal to telephoto range. Instead, here I was, right up against the base of New Zealand’s Southern Alps, with everything on my side of the ridge in shadow. Potential foreground subjects were limited—mostly grasses, bushes and stunted trees, all in rather murky light—and only Mount Cook’s 12,218-foot summit pyramid and the clouds above caught the rays of the setting sun. It occurred to me that rather than resorting to the easy solution of making a tight mountain portrait with a telephoto, I could create more graphic interest, and a uniquely original composition, by mounting a super-wide lens and searching out a cohesive design among the trees, silhouetting them against the colorful sky. Mount Cook, “pushed away” and reduced in scale by the wide focal length, would then simply provide a sense of place and act as the primary focal point of a picture that is more about my personal experience of being in the valley that evening than it is about the high peak itself.
Nikon D810, AF-S NIKKOR 18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G ED at 18mm, Really Right Stuff TVC-24L tripod with BH-55 head. Exposure: 1/50 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 800.
Call it beginner’s luck, but bright-eyed novices often possess an enviably unconstrained creativity. Many years ago, I led a workshop group to a field of wild iris in full bloom, beneath the soaring granite backdrop of the Sierra Nevada’s east face. We arrived early, with ample time for everyone to scout out their own compositions before alpenglow lit up the peaks. The scene suggested a classic near-far composition, with clusters of iris in the foreground and the peaks toward the top of the frame. Folks went to work, and the sweet light came and went.
Back at the classroom, when we projected the resulting images, it turned out that the participants had made some very strong but rather predictable photographs, with more similarities than differences. They each had made a version of “the shot.” But then, up on the screen appeared an image that made us all gasp. One participant, whose name unfortunately escapes me—a true novice photographer—had dispensed with the mountains and the alpenglow altogether. Instead, she laid down on the ground, pointed her lens skyward, placing silhouetted iris stems and delicate, translucent purple flowers against a background of robin’s-egg-blue sky. The image had minor issues of technique that one might expect of a beginner, but the fundamental design, color palette and tonalities yielded a truly unexpected and elegant composition. It was simply a wonderful picture that she was able to find because she possessed both creative open-mindedness and the curiosity of a visual explorer. It was a unique photograph, all her own.
Frozen, Skua at Booth Island, Lemaire Channel, Antarctica, 2020. One of the grandest scenes on most Antarctic cruises is the Lemaire Channel, with the soaring glaciated peaks of Booth Island and the Antarctic Peninsula rising steeply on either side. Most of the cruise ships do a passage or two through the channel, but as masters of the private vessels we use on our Visionary Wild Antarctica adventures, we are able to spend quality time there photographing. The luxury of time and control over mobility leads to deeper seeing and greater creativity, as we get the big scenic vistas out of our system and start seeing and working with the simpler, more concise graphic opportunities available in the landscape.
In this case, we found a large iceberg floating in the channel at the south end of Booth Island, with the sun lighting it from above and behind. Meanwhile, large areas of the glacier on the island were in the shade of the mountains, enabling me to isolate the sunlit curve of the iceberg against the darker glacial backdrop. The decisive moment came when a skua flew across my composition, lending the photograph a perfect visual accent.
Fujifilm GFX 100, FUJINON GF250mmF4 R LM OIS WR with 1.4x teleconverter (277mm equivalent). Exposure: 1/1000 sec., ƒ/16, ISO 800.
Contrast that with scenes we see photographed over and over, as keen photographers crowd together to knock off iconic landscape compositions. Astonishingly, in February 2019, about 2,000 photographers crowded together at narrow vantage points in Yosemite Valley, seeking to shoot their own takes on Galen Rowell’s classic 1973 photograph, “Last light on Horsetail Falls,” some trampling sensitive vegetation, some leaving behind trash and others arguing over tripod positions. I get it. It’s a great photograph of a truly sublime scene. I’ve personally inspected Galen’s original Kodachrome slide under a loupe and marveled at how well rendered it was in the original—no Photoshop trickery there. As is the case with many iconic landscape compositions, the formula for getting “the shot” can be readily found online, and other than potential human impacts to the landscape, there’s nothing inherently wrong with folks continuing to photograph the annual spectacle. But I suspect that if I found myself in Yosemite in February, I’d just leave my camera in the car and watch the lightshow, because for me, that picture was Galen’s, and I want to apply my efforts to making photographs that result from my own experiences and discoveries—my personal visual interpretation of the world.