Beyond The Range Of Light

From her home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Elizabeth Carmel is focused on capturing dramatic vistas in transition

From her home in Truckee, California, Elizabeth Carmel explores the length and breadth of the Sierra Nevada, but she doesn’t confine herself to that landscape alone. From the Baja Peninsula to the Caribbean to Denali in Alaska, Carmel is constantly capturing new images. The click of the shutter button is only the beginning of her process of making a photograph. In Photoshop, she takes the keepers from a photo expedition and begins to work them into art.
Sunset, Bonsai Rock, Lake Tahoe, Nevada

Based in Northern California, Elizabeth Carmel is one of the top nature photographers working today. Her successes come from a combination of sheer artistic talent and a persistent push to look for new ways to get her images seen. In 2006, before the age of Blurb and other small-run printers, Carmel self-published a book, Brilliant Waters: Portraits of Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, and the High Sierra. In 2009, she followed that effort with her second book, The Changing Range of Light: Portraits of the Sierra Nevada.

Autumn Sunset, Zion National Park, Utah

The title The Changing Range of Light refers to the name John Muir coined for the Sierra Nevada, and it speaks to Carmel’s lifelong love affair with the region that she calls home and where she does most of her work. While many nature photographers plan trips to the far corners of the globe to capture exotic landscapes, Carmel represents the philosophy that you shoot what you know. A quick glance through the books, as well as the galleries on her website, shows a photographer who has decided that her corner of the world offers more opportunities than she or anyone can fully explore. That’s not to say that Carmel never ventures from the town of Truckee, but it’s clear that the Sierra Nevada is where she thrives and where her creative spirit is stirred into action.

In The Changing Range of Light, Carmel shows that knowing the landscape isn’t just about being able to navigate through it. Thanks to a background in environmental science, she has crafted a collection of images that shows a climate in flux, along with text from leading environmental scientists explaining the changes that are occurring now and will be coming in the future. The portrait of the Sierra Nevada that we see emerge in the book isn’t so much a landscape that’s being destroyed, but one that will undergo irrevocable change. It becomes clear that Carmel’s brand of environmentalism stands in contrast to the barrage of negativity that prevails in some quarters of the media and to the naysaying climate-change denials that prevail in others.

Rainbow Waterfall, Yosemite National Park, California

That’s not to say that Carmel denies that climate change is happening on a huge scale nor does she suggest that it’s beneficial. Rather, she places an emphasis on change. Carmel seeks to create uplifting images that will engender a sense of hope for the natural world. She presents what’s here now and she offers scientific insight on what’s happening to these landscapes. For good or for ill, climate change is an undeniable reality. The Changing Range of Light addresses the issue head-on with images that clearly show the evidence of change and with expert commentary that will give readers the reality of the situation.

As she works in a location, Carmel seeks to make an image that will give the eventual viewer a new way to think about the scene. She says, “I believe that experiencing the Earth’s beauty has the power to help nourish and unify us, both on a personal and global level. Through my photography, I strive to translate these positive experiences into fine-art prints.

My goal is to contribute uplifting imagery to the world in a time when we’re bombarded with so many negative and sensationalistic images. I hope my photographs help nurture a sense of hope and affection for the natural world. I believe that great fine-art photographs are a gateway to a larger perspective about ourselves and the universe we inhabit.”

Carmel’s ultimate goal is to overcome the limitations of the camera and image sensor and bring the image as close as possible to what she saw on location.
Granite Spires, Denali National Park, Alaska

Adds Carmel, “Sometimes when on a photo shoot, I feel pulled to a specific location to take a portrait of a place, and know that the resulting image is the product of serendipitous events that will likely never be repeated. Some of my images are more my own constructs, where I seek the realization of a specific vision in my final print. I strive to create images that link us to feelings and perceptions we may not access regularly in our daily lives. I believe that great fine-art photographs are a gateway through habitual thinking to a larger perspective.”

In the field, Carmel uses 35mm-sized DSLRs and Hasselblads. At first, she relied on the 2 1/4-square format to give her maximum compositional versatility as well as image quality when she shot film. Now, as a digital photographer, she still uses Hasselblads, but she has traded in her film magazines for digital backs. Although it has been derided as a lukewarm format—lacking both the large size of 4×5 or 8×10 and the convenience of 35mm SLRs and DSLRs—the reality is that medium format has traditionally been seen by its devotees as the best of all worlds. The large image sensors on Carmel’s Hasselblads combine with the optics that are legendary for their sharpness and contrast in a package that’s much smaller than any large-format setup. Smaller-format DSLRs have caught up in many respects, but for some shooters there’s still no substitute for medium format.

Convergence, Olympic National Park, Washington

Back in her digital darkroom at the Carmel Gallery in Truckee, Carmel makes use of Photoshop’s powerful array of tools. Her goal is to bring her images as close as possible to what she experienced when she took the photograph. Even today, we hear the tired refrain that Photoshop is cheating. In Carmel’s photographs, you can see the evidence of how Photoshop lets a true artist translate the moment of capture to the final print.

Because photography is an imperfect medium, visionary nature photographers like Carmel spend considerable time and effort developing techniques to bring their images back to what they originally saw in the field. Several years ago, OP worked with Carmel on an article that showed how to process two captures of the same scene to preserve bright highlights and deep shadow detail. Today, the technique is called High Dynamic Range photography, and there are several software options that make it simple to do. At the time, however, it was pretty revolutionary, and it shows Carmel’s consistent drive to find digital solutions to some of the fundamental problems of photography.

Using digital technology to defeat a high-contrast scene isn’t the only way Carmel has been a pioneer. She’s a woman in a field that some people still regard as male-centric. When she began her career in nature photography, that stereotype was much more accurate than it is today. Carmel remarks about the presence of women on the trails she frequents, saying, “It’s becoming more acceptable. It isn’t unusual at all to see a woman hiking alone in the Sierras. I’ve encountered very few problems in this career solely because of my gender. I think society has moved beyond a lot of sexist stereotypes with my generation, and I think it’s looking even better for my daughter’s generation in that regard.”

Beginning this summer, Carmel will have more of a chance to help guide future generations of nature photographers. She will be penning a new column in Outdoor Photographer beginning in the July 2011 issue of the magazine. We’re looking forward to having her thoughts and perspectives on nature photography and the environment in the magazine for many years to come.

You can see more of Elizabeth Carmel’s work at