Finding Passion (In Nature Photography)

What does it take to create images that go beyond what everyone else has?

Finding Passion (In Nature Photography)Outdoor Photographer readers are passionate about nature and photography. A large number of them are also passionate about protecting the environment. So you might rightfully wonder what the heck a column about digital photography today is doing talking about passion and nature photography.

I see a great deal of nature photography in submissions to OP, at my workshops and classes, in contest entries, in all the latest books and so on. Advances in camera technology along with the availability of a lot of courses and how-to articles and books have made it possible for nearly anyone to capture quality images of the outdoors.

But what I don’t always see is the passion for nature expressed in those photographs. Now before I get a lot of letters, and maybe rocks and other debris thrown at me, let me explain. Putting passion into photography has long been a personal concern of mine, and too often, an unsuccessful endeavor, so this has given me a lot of opportunities to think about not seeing passion in images.

I grew up in Minnesota. If you’ve ever listened to Garrison Keillor and A Prairie Home Companion, you know that passion simply isn’t part of most Minnesotans’ vocabulary. It’s a tough environment up there, and gosh almighty (now that’s passion!), you can’t be doing frivolous things like getting overly passionate about things, don’t ya know.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Minnesota, and I have great friends and relatives there. But you won’t find them clapping to the beat at a contemporary worship service! In fact, a good friend of mine is a Lutheran pastor and he actually can’t get the rhythm right if he tries to clap.

I worked in Minneapolis for many years doing film and video productions for large companies, and everything was very carefully measured and communicated. No sense in stirring up folks.


So my nature photography strove to be accurate and true. I had studied plant and soil science in college, then worked as a naturalist. My photographs represented a naturalist and scientist point of view—good to show off details, but not so much about passion.

When we moved to Los Angeles about 14 years ago, I was struck by the passions of those involved in the photo and film industries here. These weren’t nature photographers, but they cared deeply about their work and they put passion into it.

Certainly not all movies or L.A. photography has passion in it. Some are, to be frank, beautifully done, but empty—vacuous pandering to the latest trend or fad. But the best work, especially movies, showed a passion for the image and the expression of that work that simply hadn’t been part of my life. Magazines like American Cinematographer told how photographers dug deeply into the stories they were telling in order to find expressive ways of communicating through the medium.

I wanted some of that, but I struggled with my own "rules" of photography. I continued to try to make my work "better," but that often just meant mastering the technology and techniques better. Because I had done that work, though, my knowledge of the technology and techniques served me well to become editor of Outdoor Photographer and be part of the Werner Publishing Photography Group (Outdoor Photographer, PCPhoto, Digital Photo Pro and HDVideoPro magazines).

Here, I’ve seen some of the truly great photographers working today, photographers whose passion for nature photography shows through in their images: David Muench, Art Wolfe, the late Galen Rowell, Dewitt Jones, Frans Lanting and so many more. But it’s interesting to me that some of the really strong and most evocative work shows up in the commercial photography of Digital Photo Pro and now HDVideoPro.

Digital photography has strongly influenced a lot of these photographers. They have pushed the limits of the medium, not to fool anyone, but to make their photographs more expressive and more passionate.

But this month’s column isn’t about digital technologies. I’ve discovered, however, that digital cameras consistently bring many photographers new joy and passion for photography because of the immediacy of working with the image, both from reviewing and interacting with it on the LCD and the ability to make prints so quickly.

Two challenges face nature photographers like me who are interested in getting more passion into their work: the idea of nature as a sacred, inviolate subject to be photographed simply as it is and the strong influence of some of the greats of nature photography.


Let’s look at the first idea. Many photographers are so awed by nature that they spend a lot of money for the best in equipment, just so they can capture that awe. The camera is put on a tripod in front of the scene, then reverentially, an image is made. I know this mode—I’ve been there with that camera and tripod.

But too often, that awe isn’t captured because the awe isn’t in the nature, but in the photographer. A passive recording of the scene can’t show awe that comes from the photographer. This is why, so often, photographers will describe, quite vividly, their excitement in the photography, yet the viewer sees none of that in the actual images.

I’m learning some ways around that trap. First, I need to recognize that the awe is in us, not the subject, and that I must work to master the craft of photography so that I can make the technology and techniques serve my photographs, not the subject, so that my passion can come through in the image.

Second, I want to play and experiment with photography, stretch its boundaries, not to try to fool anyone, but to learn how to better communicate through words and pictures my feelings and my passion for nature. This is no easy task, especially for an ex-Minnesotan with Lutheran leanings. But I’ve been so stimulated by photographers like Beth Wald (in this issue) and their passionate work, plus the good L.A. work, that I want to do better with allowing my passions to show in my photography as well.

As to the other challenge—the strong influence of the past—the best example of this is probably David Muench. His strong foreground plus strong background wide-angle shots are a trademark of his work, and he started doing this type of shot many years ago. I’m sure he doesn’t know whether to be proud of or shocked by all the copies of his technique. You actually hear people talking about a David Muench foreground or wide-angle technique as if it was about technology and not someone’s personal vision.

A lot of the Muench-wannabe photographs really have little passion, whereas the original David Muench pictures show a great deal of passion in the images. This is because the first are merely technique, while the latter truly are based on something within the photographer’s soul.


Ansel Adams once talked about this issue. Evidently, photography schools once had everyone take the same photo—not just the same subject, but the exact same photo. This was supposedly done so certain techniques could be emphasized. Adams hated that approach because he felt it killed the creativity and original thinking of a beginning photographer—and maybe removed passion; it’s pretty hard to be passionate about photographing something exactly the same as the rest of a group in a class.

I know all about this. I’ve done it myself for both Rowell- and Muench-like shots. I once saw a bit of edge light at sunset that looked just like a Galen Rowell shot, so I had to take that picture, figuring if it was good enough for Galen, it was good enough for me. But I know now that my image could never have had the same passion that Rowell’s photos had. My photo may be technically perfect, but it has nothing more than technique to grab the viewer.

My change to digital influenced me to go beyond technique and find my own passions to photograph. Why? Because I could see the image as soon as I took it—I could look at a little "photograph" in the LCD and see if it worked as a photograph, not simply a captured subject. More than once I’ve packed up my tripod and gear, then decided to take another look at the LCD review, only to discover I didn’t get what I wanted, so the tripod was set back up and the gear pulled out of the bag.

That has been a good thing for me. That second look at the image I had captured let me see it more isolated than when the camera was set up "in awe" of the subject. Often, I didn’t see the awe, so it meant going back to work, but it was exciting to know I was getting a better photo.

What does passion and awe mean to you in your photography? It’s something different for all of us. The key to gaining more-expressive and evocative images of nature is to find out what it means to you, then experiment with a lot of picture-taking to discover how to best show it off in your photographs.

3 Comments

    The finest example of passion in photography to me is the vegetables done by Edward Weston in the 1930s, and particularly his peppers. If you look at them and let the images come to you, with their weight and firmness, shadows and mysteries, whew! And then read his daybooks entries about these pieces, and you can see his motivation as well.

    Passion though means different things to different people. Still, we can recognize it when we see it.

    “But too often, that awe isn?۪t captured because the awe isn?۪t in the nature, but in the photographer.” I think this sums up the situation we are frequently in. And explains why I post process my images — to try to bring out what I have called “what I saw” — even though the camera didn’t.

    We are going to Copper Canyon next week. I was looking through other people’s pictures taken there and commented to my husband that I didn’t have much hope for the landscape shots and will probably want to concentrate on people and their environment. Clearly the photographers were in awe of what they saw, but rarely did that awe come out in their photographs. Some things that are awesome are just very difficult to capture! Especially if you have a very short time at the destination and hence are not able to experience various seasons, times of day, and weather.

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