"Adjust the settings until the exposure needle is in the middle," my dad said, as I wobbly held the Olympus OM film camera. My child-sized hands fumbling with the aperture and shutter speed adjustments on this strange device. Soon I was able to bring the needle of the light meter to the center position, indicating a proper exposure. I held steady and pressed the mechanical shutter release. CLICK.
That was in the '80s, and it was my first experience with an Olympus camera. Cameras and technology have come a long way since that time. Although our cameras make different noises and have advanced features the fundamentals are the same. Focus, Aperture and Shutter Speed. Many articles talk about the mechanical aspects of photography, those are indeed important but they are also the easiest to master. The more interesting and intangible aspect is the photographer’s vision.
The digital age allowed me to affordably take an endless stream of photographs and perfect the technical aspects of photography. Tens of thousands of photos, all sharp, exposed correctly, and technically composed but yet utterly boring. My photography was missing that special something that was in the work of others that I admired. Finding this missing element became a goal of mine.
In my youth I have read numerous photography books that reference to something mysterious called ‘inner vision’. One major influence of mine was the late Galen Rowell. He wrote several books diving into his philosophy and vision. I imagined that ‘vision’ was sort of like an image in your mind’s eye, like a day dream. It was a concept that I intellectually grasped but lacked any function for me. My photography at the time was mostly reactionary. If I haphazardly walked into something interesting I would take a photo of it. There was no inkling of vision in my work. Nonetheless, I trusted the sage words of these veteran photographers and hoped that one day I too would also develop my inner vision. In reality I had much doubt in my mind that such a thing would ever happen, or that the mythical inner vision even existed at all.
Vision Quest in the Great Outdoors
In perhaps an act of pre-midlife crisis, my wife and I decided to satisfy our thirst for adventure. We planned to thru hike the 2650 mile Pacific Crest Trail which travels up the west coast of the United States. The trail starts at the Mexican border and ends at the northern border with Canada. I knew that I would want to take a camera along with me so I spent significant time researching. I ultimately decided on the Olympus E1 because of the environmental sealing, dust removal system and fairly compact size. It was a decision that would start a love affair with the Olympus 4/3 system. We started in the spring of 2006, hiking north from the southern border with Mexico. Ahead of us laid months of hiking thru endless rolling landscapes with just our backpacks, gear and determination to see us thru.
Within days my needs were quickly distilled down to the essentials needed to live and photograph. We kept shedding unnecessary equipment, mailing things home when we crossed towns with post offices. This is where my true education in gear minimalism took place. I learned that most of the time less gear is better. In the end my core gear consisted of the E1, the 11-22mm f2.8-3.5 lens and the 50mm f2 macro. The gear worked flawlessly hiking thru the high mountains of the Sierra Nevada and the deserts of the south. Although I am careful with my gear it was inevitably roughed up. It survived being dropped, dunked in water, dust storms, rained on and smashed on more than on occasion.
After a few weeks the E1 started to become an extension of my body. I could navigate the menus without looking at the screen. Every function that I used was muscle memory. The mechanical aspects of photography were on autopilot. I didn’t have to think about the technical aspects of photography anymore. I could concentrate on what I was seeing rather than doing. After walking thru endless permutations of landscapes day after day I started seeing themes, archetypes and nature’s fractal beauty in unexpected places. My love of landscape photography was raised to another level.
Changes in my compositions were happening. Instead of trying to include everything in my images, I started distilling the compositions to their fundamental elements, really see what is there at the core. Contrary to what one might believe, the human eye is good at distilling scenes down to essential elements. It’s the things you don’t see in the composition that tend to ruin the photograph. An errant branch, strange reflection, tilted lines and a plethora of other things can quickly ruin an otherwise wonderful image. Being able to see both the essential elements and the distracting elements is key. This is harder than it sounds because our brains are continuously making unconscious corrections to the world around us. Those assumptions cover up distracting elements by design. An example of this phenomena can be illustrated by a recent experiment where college students were told to watch a short video of a basketball game and count the score. Midway thru the video a man in a gorilla suit walks thru the court. After the video is over the professor asks the students if they saw the gorilla, most of the students did not, but did get the score correct. The brain also functions as a filter for audible input, I am sure that most people who are reading this can tune in to a conversation in a crowed bar without hearing the background noise. Similarly most would not notice the candy wrapper in the background when looking into the eyes of a loved one. Given a task the brain will filter out unnecessary data. The camera and audio recorder do not have this filtering capability, they simply record everything as it is. Although this phenomena is annoying for a photographer, if it is understood then it can be overcome.
Keeping my new observations in mind I slowly became a participant in the creation of my photography not a passive observer. This freedom from the mechanical and a shift of mindset made a large difference in my work. I started seeing the elements of the scene in my mind’s eye, and saw how to extract it from the surround distractions. A mental projection from three dimensions to a two dimensional plane. A knowledge of perspective and how objects in relation to their position will project thru a lens onto a camera sensor. Seeing the light and how subtle differences will translate into a photograph. Could this be it? Is this the mythical inner vision turned into reality?
After five months of hiking I had over 11 thousand photographs to go through. That was more than 10 years ago and in the mean time I have taken hundreds of thousands more. Reviewing my body of work over time, I can clearly see the change in vision. I came to the realization that most of my ideas about photography have changed over time. Believing that now I ‘know it all’ would be an act of incredible hubris. I have tried to maintain a beginners mind when approaching photography for the last decade. No matter where I am I believe that there is a photograph hidden somewhere in the landscape. It’s good to follow old and proven patterns but defiantly break them occasionally to see what you get. Keeping a beginners mind means believing your work can always be better than it is. Today I strive to continuously improve, to identify flaws in my work and eliminate them. To share what I have learned with others and to participate in the greater photography community as a whole. I honestly feel like I am just getting started on this path and have so much more to learn. Learning is really key as photography is a human pursuit. As such, I find it more valuable to spend money on education, and trips rather than gear and more stuff that won’t improve the core aspect photography.
As I look towards the future of a digital world of immersive video and virtual reality, I see photography becoming both archaic and more important at the same time. No other medium allows you to capture a slice of time, a moment that will never happen again. For many there is something compelling and magical in that idea.
Earlier this year I took my son out on his first photography trip. I rotated the mode dial to manual and handed him the camera. "Turn the knob to adjust the shutter speed," I told him, "make the exposure graph move to the middle, then press the shutter release." A few seconds later I heard a sound...beep-beep-CLICK - then I saw a familiar smile on his face, the same one that I must have made many years ago. Maybe he will catch the bug as well.