Stalking Landscapes

Legendary scenic master Tom Till describes how to use Native American wisdom to find and create dynamic and original images

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In addition to being patient and open to the environment while stalking your next landscape photo, Tom Till has learned that Native American wisdom has imparted additional guidance. Till scouts locations for light and weather, as well as relying on timing instinct for the "Pounce" to shoot compelling images. Above: At the 822-foot drop of Kaieteur Falls, Till knew when conditions would be prime for this dramatic triple half-circle rainbow, Kaieteur National Park, Guyana.

Before me in the setting sun, three half-circle rainbows rose from the mists of Kaietuer Falls in Guyana. They had appeared as if on cue. The colors were arced in shades of orange, red, violet and green. Because the Kaietuer Falls are the highest in the world, and they have such a great flow, I had been told that such unusual phenomena occurred there with frequency. I quickly composed my shot and pounced for the kill. What had brought me to this special moment? I understood the possibilities of my subject as "prey." I had pursued the photograph with commitment, spending time, traveling far and working through obstacles in my path. I had spent time with the waterfall and learned to love its changing moods through the course of the day and had waited for the right moment to shoot. I had been humble—uncertain of my success until the last moment.


The Wupatki National Monument, near Flagstaff, Arizona, captured during a lightning storm.

All these techniques, and more, have become standard procedure for me when pursuing landscape images across the globe. Although I've had an interest in Native American culture and religion since I read Black Elk Speaks in Anthropology 101, recently I've begun to see a connection with the Native American art of stalking as similar in many ways to the techniques I've used in the field for decades. With some Native American ancestry myself, and with the help of a friend who has studied with a shaman most of her life, those connections have become more clear to me, and I believe any photographer can utilize the basic tenets of stalking to improve their photography and work in a more morally centered and selfless way. At the very least, thinking about how we work in the field in a different light is always beneficial.

I'm a down-to-earth Iowan originally and not really a "New Age" guy, but I loved the books of Carlos Castaneda, and I first learned about stalking in those tales. Whether truth or fiction, the stalking described in Castaneda's books is often a life or death matter—that's not what we're discussing here. Also, stalking doesn't literally mean hunting and killing another living thing. I've thought over the years, however, that photography and hunting, whether real or metaphoric, come from a common human drive. My brother has been an obsessive hunter with a gun since childhood. I've been a hunter with a camera for decades.


The Nankoweap Ruins were multistory housing communities created in the Pueblo III Era, Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Perhaps the best way to discuss stalking is to link its precepts directly to working outdoors with a camera. One of the major goals of stalking—harmony with the environment—directly relates to our mental and emotional attitude in the field. I've seen recent Tweets by nature photographers that are far from respectful toward nature and view the outdoor photographic process as their ego pitted in a war to wrench a good photo from an uncooperative universe. Our greatest landscape photographers, like Ansel Adams and David Muench, approached the natural world with an open heart and with the desire to contribute to the highest good—and, in most cases, the desire to preserve what they were shooting. This seems only logical. If your photograph doesn't contribute to the highest good and work as an advocate for the endangered natural world, it's time for some soul-searching.

Prey, in the shamanic view of the world, would correspond to the subjects we hope to capture in our photographs. I think it's interesting that the very word "capture" has come to describe taking a photograph in the digital age. The idea of respect for the subject is paramount. I've often said to workshop groups, and in my writing, that our subjects, whatever that may be, are vastly more important than our photography goals. Ultimately, the more harmonized the stalker/photographer is with his or her prey, the more chances for success become possible. The highest form of this harmony is love for your subject. Most photographers enter the field of landscape and nature photography because they like landscapes. As humans, we've been tied to the land for millennia. As photographers, we shoot landscapes because we love them. I've been to very few places on the face of planet Earth that aren't beautiful, and I fall in love with every landscape I visit.

Besides harmonizing with the photo subject or "prey," stalking works well only when a stalker understands his or her prey. In photography, this means being as knowledgeable about the subject as possible. David Muench once said that hoping to arrive at a landscape location on a random day at a random time doesn't give a photographer much chance for success. Muench's tactic, and one I've imitated, is to find out as much as I can about prospective landscape locations and arrive on site at a time of day and year most conducive for events like strong foregrounds, good storms, optimum sun angle and seasonal variations. Last year, I "stalked" a photograph of a site I had seen in the motion picture Gladiator—an ancient city in the desert. Information in the movie credits helped me find the subject, the Saharan desert city of Ait-Ben-Haddou, in Morocco. I determined that the best light on the subject would, fortunately, come in late fall when I also would have the best chance for clouds and cool weather. I climbed atop the restaurant nearby for the best vantage point and shot as all my preparation and my understanding of the subject created the image I had hoped for.


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Another way to understand your subject/prey is the time-honored technique of scouting. I don't hear photographers talk too much about scouting these days, perhaps because visiting a location several times before actually starting to shoot burns up a lot of expensive fossil fuel. I scout virtually with The Photographer's Ephemeris. It's the next best thing to physical scouting, and it can save a lot of time and money and still provide you with a very good idea of what will happen at any given location at any time worldwide.

Shamanic stalkers are also good at waiting for the right moment and not giving up. The idea of the decisive moment is as important to stalkers and landscape and nature photographers as it was in the work of Cartier-Bresson. In shamanic language, this is called the Pounce or the Kill. I once had a photo tour client who said I was like an eagle—swooping in for the kill on a shot quickly and confidently. It was a nice compliment and, if true, more due to my years of experience than any innate talent. I do find, however, that many aspiring photographers are very blasé about this most important part of the process. I sometimes have to cajole clients to shoot when the light is peaking or remind them to look behind them when their camera is pointed in the wrong direction. When it comes time for the kill, a photographer in the field must become as sensitive to his or her environment as a big cat in the wild. Last winter, I waited for months for clouds that I wanted for a shot of Double Arch in Arches National Park, and when the time came I had only moments to shoot. It's often driven home to me that decisive moments are fleeting, often once-in-a-lifetime, unrepeatable affairs, and like a wild animal, you must be ready to strike when they come.

In the Southwest where I live, reminders of Native American culture and life are everywhere and are a part of our worldview. This heritage belongs to all Americans. Fortunately, our Native American brothers and sisters have been more than generous about sharing their passion for the landscape that has sustained them, and cultural philosophies that relate to all aspects of life, including photography. When it comes to landscapes and nature, their attitude is one of profound appreciation of beauty and deep respect for Mother Earth—no wonder they have so much to tell us about how to improve the art of outdoor photography.

You can see more of Tom Till's photography and sign up for his workshops at tomtillphotography.com.

Techniques Of Stalkers And Dreamers


Ait-Ben-Haddou, Saharan Desert, Morocco

In Native American traditions, those training with a shaman might be called either Stalkers or Dreamers, depending on their personality. Sometimes the techniques of Dreamers can work with stalking to achieve the action or result, in this case, a photograph you're seeking.

Richly envision things. I've found it beneficial to think about shots I can get whenever my mind is at rest. You might say I meditate about them. I also sometimes draw pictures of the shot I want to get like movie storyboards.

Imagine the many facets of a location at different times. Stalking and dreaming in photography might include the technique of envisioning a location under many different conditions. I think about how the places I visit will look during different seasons, with different sun angles, and with foregrounds of flowers or water that may exist at other times. I keep track of the moon to use it as a subject element whenever possible, and always determine the best time of day to shoot any location.

Previsualize the shot, but explore a location with an open mind. Essentially, Stalkers and Dreamers create scenarios in their heads, but may not take action immediately. Many photographers can improve their work by doing both. I like to walk through beautiful country without a camera or backpack and soak in the ambience of a place, especially during the middle of the day when I'm not shooting.

Be patient and let the scene materialize. Stalkers and Dreamers are patient observers who wait for circumstances to align themselves, sometimes waiting until the "prey" actually wants to offer itself. I've had the strange conviction at times that the subject wanted to be photographed. Ansel Adams himself has referred to this same bond between photographer and subject.

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