National Park in the Backyard

Camera – check. Batteries – check. Boots, backpack, tripod… I’m ready to go.

For a while I had been obsessed with an idea of finding interesting pictures in my backyard, in my neighborhood, in the parks nearby. I thought of it as my personal challenge: finding interesting images where I live without going far away to popular photographic destinations.

One of the outcomes of it was an ongoing project “My Backyard” with a new installment published to my website every year. This time I took it one step further though. I decided to treat a patch of wilderness in the middle of my neighborhood as a National Park. I got all my gear the way I would take it on a hike in a national park. I got water and snack and I went exploring.

There was a well developed trail around the lake used by runners, joggers, and walkers. Along it there were plenty of side trails just begging to be explored. I walked to that trail briskly. Once I got on the lake trail I slowed down watching out for the side trails that would get me closer to the water.

Some were well-walked. Others were barely visible and somehow more enticing: following them I would make my way through shrubbery and brambles to eventually get close to water. A wall of trees would isolate me from civilization creating a realm of nature with its own sounds, with its own beauty.

Just like that, following one of those side trails, I found a place that would be great for taking pictures at sunset. Perched up on the log I settled down waiting for the sunset. Time flowed past quietly unnoticeably and somehow the wait was over. The warm colors of sunset was filling the sky. The tops of the trees were still holding the sun by its last rays. And the lake was reflecting it all in the upside down world…

I got home well after dark. I was tired but happy that I went on an amazing hike in the patch of wilderness in my neighborhood.


A popular piece of advice in landscape photography is to stay and wait at sunset till the last light disappears. You never know what surprises can happen at sunset. I’ve advocated for the same myself. But…

A couple of days ago I went to Mount Rainier National Park. I hiked to one of my favorite spots up the Pinnacle Peak trail. I had not been there for, well, a year. I had missed it and was very glad to be there again.

I got there just in time for sunset. I intended to stay there during the sunset taking pictures and enjoying the view. Well, the joy did not last long. My presence attracted swarms of mosquitoes. The little devils would bite me in several places at once. Instead of enjoying the wilderness and taking pictures, I was spending most of the time swatting mosquitoes. It was not fun. It was not enjoyable.

Frustrated, I decided to head back before the sun even dropped below the mountain ridge. The way I rationalized it to myself was that if I were to spend every sunset and every sunrise in the same well-scouted places I would never see it in from any unexpected places.

As I was heading down the trail, that was exactly what happened. A beam of sunlight found its way through the clouds and the mountain peaks as the sun just settled below the mountain ridge. I was awestruck by the unexpected photo opportunity. I was glad I started heading down early. I would not have been able to see this from the place where I had planned to spend the sunset.

Be open to photo opportunities everywhere, seek out and be prepared for the unexpected.

Accepting Failure

Today I’ve been going thru some of unfinished prints trying to get organized and prepared for the next year of art fairs.

Several prints have never been finished. They are odds and misses. Something is wrong with them. Maybe size does not match the frame, maybe there is a specle of dust caught in the coating. And yet I keep them.

I’ve asked myself why I keep them. The answer was not immediate and not obvious. What I came to realize was that it was hard to accept failure. I had failed those prints but I could not face it.

Instead of accepting the failure I was cheating myself into believing that I can still salvage them. A lot of effort went into making those prints. Even when I saw it not going well I would still push forward with it.

As I realized that something else dawn on me. The same thing often happens during postprocessing. Sometimes I come back from a trip and bring a lot of not so good images. It might happen for many different reasons: my mind was somewhere else, I did not feel emotional connection to the place, weather did not cooperate, I had gotten “out of shape” not photographing for a while.

Rather than saying – “oh, well, things did not work out” – I spend countless hours trying to make something of it, treaking myself with thinking that there must be something in those images. What I end up with is overprocessed images that I look at a few month later and think “what was I thinking”.

It is something I should watch for in the future. Be brutal if you wish in editing images.

Inspiration Help

A while ago an interesting discussion happened in one of photographic online communities which I’m a part of. One of the members asked what helped other photographers to find inspiration. I’ve written quite detailed response which I include with some edits and additions below.

Here are some ideas I have come up with (I’ve done some of it, it does not mean it will work for you):

  1. Shift thinking from gear to thinking about idea/message.
    • Limit yourself to a single camera, single lens, polarizer and ND, and natural light for a while.
    • Shift from reading gearful info sources to gearless. For example, instead of reading about latest cameras, lenses, etc, read about history of photography. Delete all mails that mention gear without reading.
    • Read photo books by film photographers. Unfortunately, most digital photographer books I’ve seen fall into technology trap. Somehow film photographers were not writing books on Velvia or best processing of the first 1 inch of a film but on what they felt in the field, how they tried to capture that feeling and how to transfer it during processing.
    • Don’t do whatever is the latest wave in photography: HDR, astro-photography, etc. Just because it can be done does not mean each of us should do it. Try to do what photographers did 20 years ago. They were still doing great photography without latest and greatest we have.
  2. Think about the moment.
    • What’s so special about a moment that you’re photographing? Is it in any way different than an hour ago, a day ago? How to express what’s special in the best way?
    • Who is it special for? For example, I have a lot of photos of my son, but I have not published them or shown to anyone except my family and close friends, because they capture moments special for very narrow group of people (really only me and my wife).
  3. Be very critical in selection process.
    • Set a limit on number of photos to publish after weekend long trip to 2, after week long trip to 10. Make an effort to select those best and not more than that.
    • Jay Maisel once said something like “[Good] photographer is the one that does not show bad photos.” I love this saying.
    • Set some quality gates on photograph that you show. I value color, texture and subject in photograph. If something is missing, sorry it does not pass my quality gates and I’m not going to show it. For example, I have photographed a great texture of clouds, rocks, frost but they were just that – great textures. They did not have any subject – thus I don’t show them. But they come useful in my exploration of impressionism in photography.
  4. Study something related to art but not photography, like painting.
    • No need to learn how to paint, but read about artists, see documentary, look at paintings, read about paintings.
    • What is helps it to think about idea (back to my first point). When I look at paintings I think about color, light, composition, look at brush strokes and try to move my hand like that, imagine what was artists emotional state (I don’t think about brand of paint or brush they used, since I’m not interested in that).
  5. Block yourself from social photography.
    • Don’t look at Flickr, Facebook, etc. Look at photo books, magazines (that don’t mention gear).
    • It is easy to get overwhelmed by all the images we look at on websites (especially if not everyone in your social circle is critical in selection process). In some sense I feel like a composer trying to write a new tune after listening to a cacophony of an orchestra where each musician played a different tune.
  6. Analyze photographs.
    • Analyze your own photographs. What can be done better? After first time I photograph new subject or place I bring a bunch of photos none of which I show to anyone. I use them to learn what kind of photos I’d like to make. For example, I was very disappointed with photos I took on my first visit to the Palouse. Then after a while I started seeing in those photos the photos I’d really like to take.
    • Decompose someone else’s photos that you love. Why you love them? What makes them work?
    • Try to repeat someone else’s photos you love. Compare. Is it as good? If not, why? Repeat. That’s what I largely did during my first couple years of photography beyond snapshot. This made me learn a lot about interplay of objects, textures, light, color, etc.
  7. Find a local group of photographers like yourself.
    • Meet regularly in a small group to discuss each others photographs. Give a little walk out with a lot. You may contribute a little but once each member contributes a little you walk out with a lot of ideas to think about. You’ll grow together as a group.
    • Have prints that can be written on. What you might come out with from such meetings is a plan of how to improve a photograph written right on the print.
    • I was lucky enough to find such group of photographers early in my photographic journey: Thank you, everyone in Group f/5.6.

One idea that might help you but did not help me:

  • Work in projects. Put a goal to create a series of photos about something: particular kind of events, particular light, subject, time of day, etc. And produce 10-20 good photographs, each showing it in unique way. It cannot be something short lived, like a single wedding, but it can be single element of a wedding shown thru multiple weddings.

The reason it did not work for me is because I’m not systematic in my photography. I go to photograph something for a project and end up seeing something else that I’d rather photograph in that particular moment. Or my mood changed and I’m not interested in photographing in the same style or mood.

Hopefully, some of you might find this helpful. Happy photographing!

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