Challenge of One Road

The main part of this blog post was written last September after my trip to the Palouse at the end of August. It took me a while to come back to it to finish it. The idea of challenging myself is still very important to me and the post remains very much relevant.

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Blue sky above with a streak of white clouds passing by, yellow rolling hills covered with a patchwork blanket of fields below and I’m standing a top of a butte floating between those two. Such a familiar landscape. So many times I’ve visited the Palouse, browsed its network of dirt roads raising dust clouds behind me in the air, captured its beauty in many images. And yet I visit it again and again. Its rolling hills are comforting, meditative and relaxing.

All my visits up till last would start at Steptoe Butte. It was my way to greet the Palouse, taking it all in in one sweeping 360 degree view. It was an easily most noticeable landmark in the Palouse, a popular destination for photographers, a place where images are easy to come by. The biggest challenge is to make something new.

Lately I had noticed my photos from the Palouse had become repetitive. I had my favorite spot for sunrise photography. I had my favorite spot for sunset photography. I kept visiting them every time I went to the Palouse. No risks taken. Guaranteed sunrise or sunset image. Just the way I had done many times. To do something new I had to do something different. I had to allow myself to fail. I needed to give myself an opportunity to see sunrise and sunset in different places. That might mean that I would leave without a killer shot but I can instead leave with a sense of exploration and wonder.

That is what I had on my mind during my last visit to the Palouse.

The first morning of the trip I got up early, before the first light of the day to come had started filling the starry sky. It was dark and chilly. Rather than rushing to a familiar sunrise spot in the morning – one of those I had taken pictures at during previous visits. I got into the car, drove out of the town and then turned onto some random dirt road letting the sunrise catch me somewhere unexpected, somewhere where I had not seen sunrise before.

I managed to get a few pictures during sunrise in different places. First one was a barn with a gradient of cold and warm colors of pre-dawn light in the sky. Then the light of the sun that rose just above the horizon barely skimming the tops of the hills with a lonely windmill, with a Steptoe Butte in the background.

After the early morning exploration I got back to the hotel to have a breakfast. During the breakfast another thought came to my mind: Do I have to wander about at random places? What if I explore the same place deeper? What if I challenge myself to find new images in the same place?

So I’ve decided to visit the same route I picked in the morning… Fast forward two days ahead, I drove that route six times during the trip. Each time I found new images, noticed things that had eluded my attention before. It was fascinating to observe how my attention was getting sharper. I would not notice those things without that focused exercise.

Besides seeing new things in already familiar places I had an opportunity to see the same places in different light: see them in the morning, at noon and in the evening; see how they changed. And as I was going to the same place over and over I was giving an opportunity for something special to happen. One time I got to see a man fly-fishing in a shallow creek, another time a tractor was working the field rising a column of dust in the sky. All of it by driving the same route over and over.

The take away from this story is that it does not matter how far or how close we travel, it does not matter if we visit an old place or a new, what matters for a creativity is a state of mind. Setting some specific goals for self-improvement, setting up challenges often helps to do something truly new and rediscover yourself.

One Arrow, Many Photos

Just how many photos of the same subject can be made? Apparently a lot.

One of the key locations we photographed on the last trip to Canada was an artificial lake by a tiny town of Nordegg. The winter is bitterly cold their and the lake freezes deep enough to walk on ice. The constant wind blowing over the lake keeps the ice clean from snow. What’s most interesting is air bubbles that rise from the bottom of the lake just to be captured in ice building fantastic three-dimensional structures.

One of such structures was in a form of an arrow. I was so drawn to it that I spent hours photographing it over two days. Coming up with new and new ways to do it. Here is how it looked:

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Now how about using flashlight to highlight part of an arrow? That circle at the head of the arrow seems very attractive:

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How about showing the arrow in the context of the area surrounding it? Let it be the lead to othe bubbles:

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Let’s step further away. How about hiding the arrow in a landscape for a curious eye to find:

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I’ve done much more different photos of the same subject on that trip; they are just not as good.

I guess my point is that I don’t come-see-take a photo. I work with the subject, explore it visually and find many photos of it which eventually dwindles to a few ones I keep.

Getting off a Beaten Path

How much time changes landscape. Last time I visited Zion 7 years ago. Two friends-photographers and me were the only ones photographing at sunrise behind old visitor center. Here is the photo I took that morning: Zion in the Morning.

Just a couple of weeks ago I visited Zion again. This time there were 40 photographers there waiting for sunrise. It looked like a line of people attacking the landscape. I’m glad the popularity of landscape photography grew so much over the years. At the same time I start missing serenity and serendipity of some landscapes.

Nevertheless it was a good thing for me because it forced me to leave that place and go on the search for new places. And I’m glad I did. I found what I think is much stronger composition:

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Taking a Risk

As I mentioned in the previous post I’ve recently visited Palouse during winter time. I watched for this opportunity for a while. Everything seemed to fit this time. But the day before I left for a trip I checked road conditions and they were icy. One city – Spokane – alone saw more than 200 car accidents as a result of cars sliding down hills on icy road. And what Palouse is famous for? Right, hills!

That made me consider staying home instead. But my photo-biological clock was set already. I woke up at 2 am – the time I planned to leave to get there for sunrise. I thought it might be a sign that I should go. And I went. Turned out that the roads cleared up and driving was as safe as it could be. I finally could see Palouse in white – what a pleasure.

The morale of the story: sometime it is worth taking a risk. And be safe on your next trip!

Road to Steptoe Butte
Road to Steptoe Butte

Close to Home

Lots of things are waiting to be discovered right around the corner. You just need to make the first step toward them.

I adore photograph made in fog. At the same time there have not been much fog where I live. At some point I share my fog obsession with another local photographer and she suggested me to go to Carnation Valley in fall.

It is only about 10 minutes drive from where I live. To my surprise even when it is clear sky and sunshine outside the valley, the valley itself is filled with thick thick fog. This is likely because there are a lot of marshes there. Driving downhill into the valley is like diving into the fog.

From that point on I always go to Carnation in fall. Here are some photos I’ve made this year:

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Trusting Equipment

Since when have we started trusting our equipment to the level when we don’t use our brains anymore?

On my recent trip to Yosemite I was taking photos of a waterfall and saw a man taking a photo of his lovely wife and daughter with the waterfall in background. I was in a very good mood and decided to help him get a better picture. I gave him an advice to use fill flash to lit up their faces, since waterfall in background was bright and the sun was slightly behind. The man turned to me and said that he has a new camera that can detect when background is too bright and will pop the flash automatically.

I did not want to argue with him but found it very interesting that we started trusting equipment more than our common sense. I guess I must resist an urge to help anyone with “smarter than human” camera.

Trip Checklist

This is a series of posts with translation of my interview published in Russian at http://landscapists.info/vitaly-prokopenko. The question from the interview: “You travel a lot. Could you tell a little bit about organizing your trips: how do you prepare for a trip, how much time it takes?”

It depends on how far I travel. If it is somewhere close by car, I almost always have everything in the car. I can without additional preparation just go somewhere for weekend. (After my son was born I need to discuss with my wife ahead of time if I want to travel somewhere.)

If I travel farther away by plane (alone or with my family), preparations take a week or longer. It is typically include the following (always in the order below:

  1. Study the place I’m going to. What to expect in terms of photography. I look at photographs of the destination made by other photographers, read travel guides, study terrain from satellite photos. For example, if it is near the ocean, what’s the ocean shore line is like, interesting rocks, where I’ll be able to walk to the shore.
  2. Decide what to take (if flying by plane, if going by car I take everything). Since there is a limit on carry on and lately I also need to carry my son’s belongings (and sometimes my son himself), I try to take a bare minimum. I make compromises without doubt. For example, I’ll leave macro lenses at home and take macro filter instead to use on another lenses, or don’t take lenses for some focal length.
  3. Sunset and sunrise times. What can get into the sun way during sunrise or sunset, can it be blocked by mountains, do I need to get to higher elevation. Moonrise and moonset times. Tide table – especially important if some parts of the shore are crossable only during low tide.
  4. Cleaning up equipment: cleaning sensor on camera, cleaning lenses and filter. Charging batteries.