Frequently Asked Questions
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, April 2002

When there’s nothing to see on long, solo drives, I often pass the time by dictating copy for books, articles, and important letters. I’ve found that I dig deeper and shoot from the hip more often behind the wheel than behind a computer monitor at home. When an Australian photo magazine posed some probing interview questions last year, I said what I thought with no inhibitions, partly because it wasn’t going to be published in my country.

Upon rereading my answers, I realize that they address questions posed to me by many Outdoor Photographer readers that I don’t have the time to answer in depth individually. Frequent questions concern my writings. Is it really necessary to both write and photograph? Why do it if your photos communicate well and you make more money from photography?

There's no question that photographs can communicate more instantly and powerfully than words, but if you want to communicate a complex concept clearly, you need words, too. I began to realize early in my career that unless I wrote my own words, my message was invariably altered or, at best, weakened. I used to say that I spent 2/3 of my time writing and 1/3 photographing, but make 1/3 of my income from writing and 2/3 from photography. In the sixties, my writings were published years before any of my photographs. Today, the balance is more like 50:50, and I still make far more from my photography. One reason that I keep writing is that all my most powerful messages about the fates of wild places that I care about need to have words as well as images.

Another query, sometimes delivered as a statement with an edge to it, asks how I can possibly sleep at night knowing that my writings and photographs have created environmental impact by exposing little-known places to the public.

While I accept responsibility for attracting people to specific wildernesses, I don’t think that there is any clear and simple way of looking at it and saying that a person is wrong because they published writings or photographs about an area and therefore caused greater impact. If you look at the history of environmentalism, those who opted the other direction had zero effect. They’re dropouts. Every person who has made a difference, every Ansel Adams, David Brower, Jacques Cousteau or John Muir, opted the other way to communicate their special passion for parts of the environment that they love. I’m very careful not to mention precise locations when I write or give photo caption information to a magazine. I may write about how much I like a certain area, but I don’t say that a quarter-mile past such and such a junction you walk out one hundred feet to a point with the most fabulous view I’ve ever seen. That would cause excess impact on that point.

A related question, also sometimes delivered with an edge, asks if landscape photography really helps the environment and why I bother writing so much about that subject, instead of just telling what camera, lens, film, ƒ stop, and shutter speed I used, like columnists in those other magazines. Do I think that eco-babble will help sell my photographs to tree huggers or change a senator’s mind?

There is no question that photography has played a major role in the environmental movement. Ever since the 1860s, when photographers traveled the American West and brought photographs of scenic wonders back to the people on the East Coast, we have had an American tradition of landscape photography used for the environment. Though some photographers who weren’t particularly environmentally aware in the past have had their images used in modern times as de facto environmental statements about the value of preserving wild places, most nature photographers of today are deeply committed to the environmental message. Speaking for myself, I often donate use of my work to worthy environmental organizations, and sometimes donate my time as well. I’ve served on the Board of Directors of more than a dozen major environmental organizations, and I’m presently on the National Council of World Wildlife Fund. On the other hand, I’ve never worked with the Wilderness Society, because I have watched them consistently belittle 35mm photography in their publications. If I’m going to donate my hard-earned photography, it’s going to go where it will be used to the greatest effect.

Do I think landscape photography in general is undervalued? Yes and no. Despite the widespread use of my best work, I do not have fond memories of the time a layout editor at the National Geographic promised to run a long landscape photo essay that would eloquently communicate the beauty of the High Sierra within my story on the John Muir Trail. I was later told that when the group of editors got together to review the final layout, someone said that my landscape pictures looked like postcards. That’s demeaning. Despite how fine many photographs on postcards may be, a comment like that says that the images are kitsch, rather than interpretive works of art, craft, or journalism. The end result at the Geographic was a popular people story without a special essay of landscapes.

I know that many of those same images have been published internationally and sold many times over as exhibition prints, so luckily, many other people tell me how they have had a particular landscape photograph of mine in their office or bedroom for 15 years and it always speaks to them strongly whenever they see it.

1. I began taking pictures in the natural world to be able to show people what I was experiencing when I climbed and explored in Yosemite in the High Sierra. Words weren’t doing it. At first, pictures didn’t do it either. About 98% of them "didn’t come out." In other words, they didn’t look anywhere near as good as what I saw. I began to realize that film sees the world differently than the human eye, and that sometimes those differences can make a photograph more powerful than what you actually observed. I’ve been studying those differences and using them creatively and that’s what initially got me going on photography as a career and keeps me going almost 40 years later.

2. My mountaineering skills are not important to my best photographs, but they do add a component to my work that is definitely a bit different than that of most photographers. Wanting to take a light camera with me when I climb or do mountain runs has kept me using exclusively 35 mm. By trying to get the most out of 35 mm I’ve learned to pursue technical quality while at the same time using a camera system that is incredibly versatile from ultra-wide angle, to extreme telephotos, to flash fill, and use of graduated neutral-density filters. What I mean by photographing as a participant rather than observer is that I’m not only involved directly with some of the activities that I photograph, such as mountain climbing, but even when I’m not I have the philosophy that my mind and body are part of the natural world. I’m exchanging molecules every 30 days with the natural world and in a spiritual sense I know I am a part of it and take my photographs from that emotional feeling within me, rather than from an emotional distance as a spectator. Although this may sound new agey and spiritual, I don’t see it that way at all. I think that cognitive scientists would support the view that our visual system does not directly represent what is out there in the world and that our brain constructs a lot of the imagery that we believe we are seeing. When we tune in to an especially human way of viewing the landscape powerfully, it resonates with an audience. That’s a lot of what I’m trying to do in my landscape photographs. The landscape is like being there with a powerful personality and I’m searching for just the right angles to make that portrait come across as meaningfully as possible.

3. We have definitely entered an age when photographs are no longer "the unimpeachable witness" as they were in the 19th century when Leland Stanford collected $25,000 based on Muybridge’s photograph of horses running with all their feet off the ground at the same time. Today, no jury would convict on the basis of still photographs alone if digital imagery was involved, however if you had a strip of film that had a series of images that experts could attest were made without any digital processing, then a jury might well use them as evidence. On the other hand, when we see pictures in popular venues such as travel magazines and advertisements, our first impression of an unusual image may be "how did they do it?" In other words, how was the image manipulated? That’s why I have tried to create my own venues, such as exhibits and books, where I guarantee the viewer that I have not manipulated the images away from the original content. Where I do use digital means to create fine art prints or scans for books, as does every pre-press house in the world these days, I’m attempting to make the image more like what I really saw or what the film contains, rather than to take it away from that content and add something that wasn’t there, or delete something that might be disturbing. I want my audience to know that all my images were made on a single exposure on a single piece of film with no content added or subtracted.

Now to some advice for hikers and backpackers.

1. Why is the light of early and late hours so special? The light of magic hour is much warmer and cleaner than the light of other hours of the day for a number of reasons. With the sun angle low in the sky you have far more light coming from the warm rays of the sun that have scattered away the blue light as they go through the atmosphere. Counter-intuitively, there is actually less blue light scattered when the sun angle is low, so the sky appears a richer darker blue giving much more contrast to the scene than when you have the blueness of a brighter sky affecting everything at high noon. But more important than what is actually going on is the visual effect that we have because of the difference in the way that our eyes see color and our film sees color. Newton was wrong that color is a property of light. That only holds true if white light is a constant. During magic hour the wavelengths of light are radically towards the warm side that would be called red as a property of white light, yet we can clearly see greens in trees and the true color of people’s complexions. Our eyes construct color to have an enduring constancy no matter what the illumination, but people educated about how Newton “proved” color was matched to wavelength designed our films. In other words, magic hours are guaranteed to produce warmer tones than we see because they are locked in by rendering the chemical color response of film to the wavelength of light. Our film sees a white paper 20 minutes before sunset as quite reddish, whereas our eyes would still see a white piece of paper as white in light 20 minutes before sunset. Only when the light begins to exceed the ability of our eyes and brain to compensate do we begin to actually see the vivid warm colors around sunrise or sunset, and then it’s too late to start photographing. The great quality of light was beginning to happen at least half an hour earlier.

2. Pre-visualization does not necessarily mean that you have visited a location before, but that you pre-visualize the way the image will look on film before you take the photograph, instead of merely taking a snapshot with the naïve expectation that the outcome will be like you see. The problem with pre-visualization is that unless you think about it and take action, it’s a passive enterprise. In other words you found the picture by looking through your normal visual system without thinking about how things look on film. You got your feet in those Kodak footprints that are sometimes put where the landscape photograph is supposed to be right, and only then do you say to yourself, "oh this is going to look good on film so maybe I want to compose this a little differently than I ordinarily would." That’s very low-level passive pre-visualization. At a higher, more active level, pre-visualization means that you are always viewing things by mentally translating what you see into the foreign language of film and imagining the visual power in this way of seeing that is not before your eyes. Taking it a step further, if you can go to a location before hand on a different day or in different lighting, you can further imagine the way the lighting might be at the ideal time of day, what time of day that is, and return with a more powerful pre-visualization in mind and a little more spare time.

3. Graduated neutral density filters existed long before I worked with the Singh -Ray Corporation to produce very special ones in my signature line. The ones that were available in the 1970s were screw-ins without a movable line that could be moved up and down in the frame and they weren’t color-neutral. In other words, they would render a magenta cast in skies and clouds and people, which was quite objectionable. I went to Bob Singh, an optical engineer who had done things for the CIA and Defense Department as well as Kodak and other photographic companies on contract. I asked him if he could customize some filters for my special use. We ended up designing four different ones with different degrees of hardness of the edge and different degrees of density. We have a hard-edged two stop, a hard-edged three stop as well as a soft-edged two stop and a soft-edged three stop. The hard filters took 10-20 different test prototypes to get the edge working just right. The reason that you need to use graduated filters in many situations is that the human eye sees a brightness range at a glance without adjusting of about 2000: 1, while color slide film holds a range of just 8:1 within limits that look decent in a projected slide. In other words, 8:1 is about three stops of shutter speed or aperture, meaning one-and-one-half stops in each direction. If you are a stop-and-a-half over-exposed, things are pretty burned out, and if you are a stop-and-a-half under things are getting pretty murky, but if you can use a three-stop graduated filter when you have that kind of variation, then you can hold a sunset with the same value as the green trees or green grass in a meadow and have things look more the way your eye sees them.

Here are five ways for a person to improve their photos in the outdoors:

1. Learn to see like film and pre-visualize the different way a photograph will look compared to what’s before your eyes.

2. Play the hand that nature deals you. If you’ve got rain and fog and were hoping to photograph a distant landscape just like a photograph you saw published somewhere, it’s not going to work. The soft lighting might be perfect for detail in a meadow or a portrait of your partner, so find something close to the camera with a strong composition and include your background to you’re the image context. Your viewer will see the sharp image in the foreground and have the impression that the whole photograph is clean and sharp.

3. Take lightweight equipment and know exactly how to use it. Most photographic problems in the field can be cured by RTFM (read the f… manual).

4. Use a tripod wherever possible. If you are doing serious photography always carry a decent tripod into the mountains. But if you are doing casual photography, take some kind of tripod even if it’s one of those plastic ones that costs a pound or two and weighs less than an energy bar. Even though they don’t seem stable, you can get very sharp pictures with them if you position them on a rock or log and use the self-timer to release the shutter after a delay so that the camera doesn’t shake.

5. Avoid the rut of taking record shots. Imagine that each photograph you’re going to take is the cover of a magazine or the lead photograph in some grand exhibit. Once you think about how it should look when its presented to people who weren’t there, you avoid taking those boring staring-in-the camera shots of you and your partner dead in the middle of the picture, or those landscapes that just show a tree or a mountain without any emotional interpretation.

I hope this what you are looking for. If you have more questions, by all means send an e-mail to Mountain Light Photography <staff@mountainlight.com>.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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