Moments of Beauty and Wonder from Nature
Supplement to Jim Everett’s Sirius Radio interview on “Seize The Day”, with Gus Lloyd
This post looks at how we can use a photograph to capture and share a moment of beauty in nature that inspires us. Let’s shift gears from photographic tips and techniques, and get in touch with our feelings.
The image above was taken in an old volcanic area in Oregon. What struck me was the determination of the life force, for this delicate new plant growth to spring from such a rugged and inhospitable setting. For this, I wanted to capture an image that was simple and minimal, yet brimming with hope.
Key areas I will touch on in this post:
1. Learning to see, value and absorb natural beauty
2. When to take photos, and when is it good not to
3. How to capture and present the pictures you take
Some people are too busy with other things, some have simply never learned to appreciate and be enriched by beauty. Others may see everything as a photo opportunity, without really absorbing the wonder.
When we see something beautiful, whether a stunning vista or a tiny delicate flower, our appreciation is often greater when seeing it for the first time.
Take someone who lives in a place that others may consider to have a great beauty. They may always appreciate how lovely their environment is, but may not have the same sense of wonder as someone who comes from, say, a desolate environment.
But sadly, there are some who grow up where it is devoid of natural beauty, and do not learn how to see beauty. They may even feel uncomfortable surrounded by untouched nature.
When we have lived in a setting we love and enjoy, we miss it when we are separated from it. We often idealize it in our mind how beautiful the environment was. And when we grow up in a natural environment, it somehow embeds itself in us, and we feel the need to reconnect after we have moved away.
Where I grew up was only a short drive to places that have a 360 degree horizon. Even as an adult, I still love being in a place that is flat as far as the eye can see. But I also treasure spectacular mountains, like the Sierras that tower to 14,000 feet.
As a boy, I used to ride my bike to the nearby river. There were thick gray forests along the alluvial flats beside the river. The river had beaches of coarse white sand, and the banks were the finest of silted soil. The floor of the forests were covered in a mat of dried, fallen eucalyptus leaves.
In the canopy, there were sulphur-crested white cockatoos, with their distinctive harsh, persistent call. In summer, often the air would be still and breathless. In winter, when there was rain, the colors in the leaves would become vibrant. The smells were magic – summer and winter different, and they still are a part of me.
Experiencing and savoring places of natural beauty often takes time. The French impressionists lived and breathed the gardens and ponds they painted. They were able to bring out some of the subtle nuances that only come from a deep intimate understanding of the familiar setting.
Contrast this with early American landscape painters in the West. Their paintings idealize the awe and majesty of the massive landscapes that they were experiencing for the first time. They often represented them being lit with heavenly lighting. Nevertheless, their artistic representation of the new landscapes they discovered still reflects a deep contemplation and study of what they saw.
The pace of modern life often rushes us past beautiful landscapes, delicate flowers, birds, water, sunsets and other rich elements that we are given as visual gifts.
Driving fast through a forest does not really give us a chance to stop and listen, feel the atmosphere, and allow the forest to become part of us. We need to stop, immerse ourselves in the environment, listen to it and feel its effect on us.
What do we need to look for, to find spirituality. The answer to this is personal and individual. I can only list what does it for me.
– What I see elicits a sense of wonder, reverence, or just give me positive chills
– The place may encourage a contemplative mood, or simply be relaxing
– There is a sense of stillness, isolation, richness, simplicity or complexity
– Nature on a grand scale as in wild mountains, rivers, canyons, oceans or deserts
– It may be in the delicacy of the detail – say a flower or dewy leaves
– There is a flow and harmony of the vista from where I stand
– There is an overwhelming beauty, whether through rich colors or stark contrasts
– The lighting creates a special and momentary mood
– It is a rare and wondrous glimpse, like a wild creature, or a hummingbird up close
What creates the spiritual connection with the beauty in nature, whether on a grand scale or a tiny delicate scale, is the lingering, the contemplation, the yielding of ourselves to the beauty, so that it becomes part of us. We experience a spiritual moment when we are taken out of ourselves.
If we are attuned, and if we allow it, we can even discover little gems of natural beauty in urban environments – flowers, trees, birds, sunsets and so on. We just have to look.
So, a key to photographing natural beauty is to somehow express, or it least identify what is that inspires us. Just pointing a camera is not enough. Unless we know what it is we’re trying to capture, and the feeling we’re trying to convey, we are just getting a pretty snapshot.
This does not mean that we need to tote around heavy tripods, large cameras, and the photographic experts. I have seen some beautiful and inspiring pictures taken with little disposable cameras.
It is really asking the question, “What is it about what I see that makes me feel the way I do?”. The next question to ask is, “What do I need to include, and to exclude, from this picture, within this rectangle, that will convey something of the experience I have at the moment?”.
And sometimes it is important to just leave the camera in its case. Taking pictures can take you out of the moment, stop you from admiring and absorbing. A place and time can be more than just visual. Do you try and capture it on film, or record the experience in your soul?
It may be hard to capture this feeling we get from a place in a single picture. It may need a series of images, in a large format book, or in a high-definition slideshow, with the captured sounds of the forest, and a gentle underlay of music.
I was thinking about whether vertical or horizontal images convey the more spiritual feeling, I put the question to my wife, who is a designer. She said that most buildings and art that seek to convey spirituality use the vertical form. We think of the soul ascending, being uplifted, and the heavens being upward. It is part of us.
Spirituality and photography has five phases for me:
1. Being in a place where the surroundings nourish your soul, and the beauty is uplifting.
2. Seeing and understanding what it is visually about the place that creates that feeling.
3. Interpreting and capturing that with discipline and conscious, correct technique
4. Later choosing images that work, enhancing and cropping them to convey the experience. My approach is “Take many, show few”.
5. Sharing them and telling the story of your experience.
Naturally, we need to apply the basics of good photography and composition. The picture needs to be exposed correctly, the right parts need to be in focus, and the subject needs to be positioned correctly within the picture to draw the viewer’s eye to it.
And every print has it’s own best size. This may be huge, folio size, or tiny. It depends on the subject and the viewing distance. Some images need to be huge. They convey a grand scale. People can view them from afar and take it all in, or step close and be immersed in the picture. Others need to be small enough to hold, like pictures of delicate flowers.
These have been a few thoughts I have evolved though my many years or photography. If these resonate with you, here are some important areas of technique you may want to to learn for different subjects:
1. Flowers – lighting, focus choice, backgrounds
2. Rivers, streams, waterfalls – shutter speed to “freeze”; make misty
3. Scenes of snow – getting the exposure so the snow looks right
4. Tiny things like flowers and insects – close-ups for intimacy
5. From a plane window – aperture setting, fixing the color later
6. Panoramas – how to set the camera and then combine images
7. Fields of flowers – getting near and far in focus, vertical formats
8. Sunsets – getting the exposure right, including other elements
9. Unusual lighting – how to capture effects on the scene
10. Fast moving creatures – using higher ISO to stop action
11. Grand scale landscapes – don’t try to get it all in, get glimpses
12. Intimate scenes – filling the image, capturing the lighting