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.

The Best Place

I’m a perfectionist. I know this about myself. My friends know it about me. I know they know because I’ve heard enough grunts from them when I get stuck in one place endlessly perfecting a picture while they want to continue hiking.

This quality of mine can be a virtue as I constantly challenge myself to be better at my craft. It drives me on a personal quest to make the best of the scene to find the best of me. But sometimes it can also be misleading.

***

This morning I woke up very early as usual given my jet lag after flying from Seattle to Rome to go to Tuscany. I like my jet lag: I wake up deep in the night hours before dawn. I can explore Tuscany by myself while most people are sleeping.

I was staying at a farm near a small hill town Pienza. During day the town was bustling with tourist and shops and restaurants but at night I could have it all to myself. It was quite: a ghost town, a movie set, a place to wander aimlessly through its narrow streets. In warm street lights it was intimate and mysterious.

I could walk along its walls and enjoy the views of mist covered fields surrounding the town, listen to the quiet of the night, breathe its chilly air. The walls were empty during night but there were plenty of photographer every morning there as they offered grand views of the surrounding hills.

The walk to Pienza from the farm was about half an hour. As I was hiking along the road that morning I passed an olive orchard. Then I walked along a winery grape field. The grape wines were low enough that I could glimpse the hills that make Tuscany such a picturesque place. As I came to the end the second olive orchard I veered off the road and sneaked between the trees to come out to a wheat field where I finally got a clear unobstructed view of the valley.

I stopped to marvel at the thick fog blanketing the valley. The fog was slowly moving in waves and only tops of the hills were floating above it like ships in the ocean. I got my camera out and started taking pictures. The perfectionist in me was telling me to go to the town walls, that they would give me a bigger view, that it might be even better, that I would miss the sunrise if I stayed there.

And yet I stayed. I could not move. I could not abandon what I saw. And it dawn on me that the place, where I was, was the best place for me to be, because I was there alone, because I was the only witness to that particular moment, I was the only one there to capture it and share its beauty with others.

Wrong Turn

I usually travel to famous destinations well-known for their spectacular views and enticing subjects. Imagine my surprise, upon taking a wrong turn on my way to a locally famous photography spot, to find a hidden gem just in my backyard. When I set out that morning, I was hoping to capture a typical fall subject: leafy trees turning a glorious red lining a quiet, intimate drive. It was a place I had visited many times in the past, and had already stopped by multiple times this season, hoping that the colors would be at their peak brilliance. It’s a beautiful place, don’t get me wrong, and it deserves the many visitors that stop by every year to get a snap of it, their cars parked in a line down the street.

But what I found instead was intimate in its own way, a place without photographers jostling to get the perfect angle, a place that isn’t photographed over and over every year. It is just as stunning, and it captures the ephemeral beauty of autumn just as well as my original destination, but most importantly, it was all mine: clear blue sky touched with a light brush stroke of white clouds, trees covered in mid-autumn yellows reflecting in the still, quiet water in the pond, occasional ripples running across the water and playing with the reflection to create a dream-like view that I had only seen in pictures from far away places.

Somewhere far in the distance, through the wall of trees, I could still hear the noise of the city, the rumble of traffic speeding down freeway, but it all seemed so distant, so surreal. It did not belong in this oasis of quiet and solitude. Rather the sounds of singing birds that had not left for the winter yet, the splashing of water disturbed by the ducks landing or taking off, the quiet whispering of leaves as the easy breeze rustled through the forest belonged here.

There was incredible stillness to the whole scene as if I had walked into a painting, my presence disturbing it and putting it into motion. It had been here all along enticing passerby with its beauty, rejoicing at capturing my attention as I was looking at it and appreciating it. Awestruck for a moment, I just stood there taking it all in before the magic disappeared. Nature was patient with me. It did not disappear. It stayed. It waited. Until I was ready to capture it not only with my eyes but with my camera too.

Pictures taken, I sat on the bank of the pond in the warm autumn sun, breathing in the refreshingly crisp autumn air filled with the sour scent of dry grass and the honey-sweet scent of fallen leaves, thinking about how easy it is to get into the habit of walking the same paths, going to the same well-known locations, photographing known scenes. It offers a sense of comfort and security knowing that I’d definitely get some good images there and if not, it would only be weather conditions to blame: no spectacular light, no sunrise, no sunset. Getting off the beaten path is unpredictable, unknown, and quite frankly scary – there might be nothing worth photographing there. But visiting the same place over and over makes photographs predictable and does not challenge me to grow as a photographer.

P.S. My writing and photography lately has been influenced by my girlfriend who gives me constant support while challenging me to do things differently including this post where she challenged me to write better and gave me some invaluable lessons in language arts.