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Friday, August 1, 2008

A New Look At The Landscape

Reimagining the traditional landscape image

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Expecting The Unexpected—Sean Bagshaw strives for a sense of mystery in his landscapes

It’s not unusual for nature photographers to get their start using cameras simply to document their expeditions. What’s unusual about Sean Bagshaw, though, is how quickly he turned from just recording his trips to using a camera as a means for creative expression.

“Taking photos enhanced my experiences in the wilderness,” Bagshaw says, “causing me to see my surroundings in a much more engaged way. I became aware of Galen Rowell, first for his climbing exploits and later for his photography. That was the start of my realization of a couple of things—first, that photography could be a creative outlet, not just a documentation tool, and second, that there were people who made their living as photographers.”

Bagshaw shifted his focus from documentation to artistry. Now he concentrates mostly on his own artistic expression, not really concerned with exactly where he’s shooting.

“Originally I started out by trying to recreate the photography of the established photographers I looked up to,” Bagshaw says, “and I traveled to the places I saw in their images. The national parks and grand landscapes of the American West are still some of my favorite places to photograph; however, I soon realized that, to develop my own style and voice, I needed to find locations that were less photographed, where I wouldn’t be able to simply reproduce what I saw in other people’s work. I enjoy traveling to off-the-path destinations, but time and expense limit how often I can.

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“My main inspiration is trying to find and develop my personal vision and voice in photography,” he continues. “To me, this is more important than the specific subject matter or location. I expect to develop my voice as a photographer for the rest of my life, but at this time I’m very focused on creating images of the landscape and nature that are in some way mysterious and slightly surreal. My goal is to create photos that simultaneously feel familiar to the viewers and yet beyond their imaginations. I want my images to feel like there’s a story behind them. I strive to feature combinations of dramatic light, composition, color, intriguing subject matter and, at times, abstraction to depict a world that appears on the edge of reality. With my background as a science teacher and a naturalist, I hope to show people that nature, in reality, can be more beautiful and compelling than fantasy.

”Bagshaw prefers to approach landscapes with a laissez-faire attitude. “No matter how carefully I plan and previsualize,” he says, “it’s usually something unexpected that I stumble across that makes the best photograph. Planning for a shot often gets me to the right place at the right time, but the key elements that make images great are usually unpredictable and fleeting. Often, I feel the essential elements of a photograph coming together more than I see them. I love the anticipation of exploring places I have little knowledge of, in the hope that I’ll come across something fantastic. I seem to have a knack for capturing good images during unplanned stops while on my way to planned destinations. If I’m feeling uninspired, I convince myself to just go out and drive or hike with nothing specific in mind and see what turns up.”

Bagshaw’s approach is increasingly common, perhaps because more photographers are utilizing versatile digital cameras. Though Bagshaw had been photographing for years, he had only invested in a couple of them learning to shoot film.

“I think because I wasn’t intimidated by or suspicious of the new technology,” he says, “digital provided me with a new and exciting doorway to photography on terms that I could more readily relate to. Because of the newness of digital, I also felt that I was on the leading edge of something that allowed me to improvise and create my own techniques instead of being locked into the film framework that had been perfected long before. Working on my own images in the computer took away the mystery of sending off my film to a lab and having someone else make all the processing decisions for me. This, in turn, helped me understand how to make in-camera choices that would help lead to desired final results.”

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Without the baggage of a longtime film photographer, Bagshaw also brings a modern sensibility to postproduction, too. Though he’s no advocate of digital fakery, he utilizes the medium’s full power to pull the most out of every scene.

“The amount of work that I put into postproduction varies from image to image,” he says. “My first priority is being in the right place at the right time with the right equipment to capture the best light, color, texture and composition I can. If the lighting of the scene is particularly balanced, then basic color/contrast/sharpening adjustments are all that I’ll apply, along with basic clean-up of dust spots and minor distracting elements. Because I really like the mood of extreme lighting and the drama of light found on the edges of day, I often find that my scenes have a greater dynamic range than can be captured in one exposure—even with the use of graduated neutral-density filters. In these cases, I’ll shoot two or more exposures in-camera for highlights and shadows and manually blend them in Photoshop. I also do a fair amount of masking and layering of adjustment layers and luminosity masks when trying to create localized adjustments, as well as dodging and burning to locally balance light and contrast.”

Adds Bagshaw, “I’m very interested in using natural conditions to create images that are on the edge of what we commonly experience as reality. I’m exploring a variety of techniques, both in-camera and in postproduction toward this goal, but it mostly depends on being in the right place at the right time.”

To see more of Sean Bagshaw’s photography, visit www.outdoorexposurephoto.com.

Sean Bagshaw
Sean Bagshaw borrowed a digital camera for an expedition in 1999 and didn’t look back. For him, photography is mostly about artistic expression and vision, but the digital realm has opened up new opportunities. He says the biggest challenges of shooting digital are the time spent working on images in postproduction, managing his backup system to prevent losing files and the tediousness of getting images published through the various channels that have become essential in the digital age—his website, stock agency sites, forums, blogs and more. Ultimately, he says whichever kind of equipment a photographer chooses to work with, whether digital or film, is the right choice. ABOVE (TOP TO BOTTOM): Sunset at Painted Hills, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon; Exposed sea grass and kelp during low tide, Lone Ranch Beach, Samuel Boardman State Park, Oregon; A ray of sun breaks through the clouds behind The Mittens, Monument Valley, Arizona. Here, Bagshaw used a Canon EOS 5D and Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L USM.


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