Changing With The Times

How a landscape photographer reinvented himself for the digital era

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A lot can change in 30 years—just ask landscape photographer Carr Clifton. He has endured a turbulent stock-photography marketplace and revolutionized workflow to find himself, creatively speaking, right back where he began. As a newbie photographer in the early 1970s, Clifton simply wanted to photograph beautiful places. Today that same desire pushes him a little farther into the great outdoors.

“America’s changed a lot,” Clifton says. “Our culture has changed, and the population has changed; the regulations have changed. The amount of photos out there has changed. All of that has an effect on someone like myself. Some places have been overphotographed, and so some of the photographers who have been around a lot don’t visit those areas any more.

Winter Sunrise “I’m aiming more toward just the visual: not telling a story, not describing a place, but just making a great photograph, whatever it takes. Whatever works is whatever works. It might be that nobody even knows what the image is, but the colors, shapes, forms and textures create a feeling in you, though you don’t know why. It’s like music without lyrics. There’s a melody there and it makes you feel a certain way, but you don’t know why. It’s just sound waves. These are just light waves.”

“The national parks have been overphotographed,” he continues. “I think there are still photographs there; there’s still a lot of great beauty, definitely, but there’s a certain style that’s been overused. More of the pictures are so evident—the postcard scenics and poster-type imagery. I guess it has just kind of pushed me to the side, looking for something different. If you crowd yourself with shooting the obvious, you’re missing everything else. You only have so much time. If that light gets great and you just shoot the first thing that you see because it’s so obvious, you’re missing the real jewels of imagery. There are always pictures that I bypass because they’re just too blatant. They’re too obvious. I think if you just dig a little deeper and move in a little closer or crop something out in a different way, it comes out so much nicer. I’m always trying to push the envelope.”

While the younger Clifton was simply happy to photograph beautiful landscapes wherever he could find them, the seasoned Clifton needs a bit more of a challenge. When you’re just starting out, every vista is new and exciting. When you’ve seen it all before, you tend to look for something different. And that could be just about anything.

“I’m absolutely looking for something different,” Clifton says, “trying to get the experience heightened, no doubt about that. I need new material. I need to see something I’ve never seen before. A type of tree maybe that I’ve never seen in person. Just a new place. I love going back to places and rephotographing; that’s a learning process all on its own. But boy, having new terrain to explore is really a creative starter. It really gets your creative juices flowing.”

The most important thing for Clifton these days is getting those creative juices flowing in a way that personally pleases him. It sounds simple, but there was a time when many stock photographers were beholden to their agencies. The landscape shooters learned what sold well, and like Pavlovian dogs, they knew what to shoot to make a buck.

Blue Sky
“Pretty soon, your camera will transmit to your office or something. We’re not going to have all this extraneous stuff. Pray to God that they figure out how to get rid of all that. You start to lose your focus with all that stuff if you take it all with you. You never can get away from the business end of it. When you’re out in the field, you really need to immerse yourself in just feelings and the visual world. I like to just get on that artistic side and stay on it and finely tune it because it takes weeks to do that when you’re out there. When you finally get back out to go shoot after you’ve been inside your home or your office, it takes a while. It’s a strange process.”

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“There was a time when stock photography was really booming,” Clifton says, “but it definitely isn’t any more. At one time, it was quite lucrative. Your business started changing because you were starting to get a monetary reward. It was kind of a knee-jerk mentality where we started shooting more of the big scenics because this was what the publishers wanted. I started out shooting the midrange shot and the close-up and the medium-range shot. Then I transferred to the larger image—the broad view of the land. Actually, I was kind of pushed into it with a reward system that made me photograph that way. So now I’m going back to my roots. I’m trying to see with my very own eye.

“I’m hoping that my judgment after this many years of photographing is true,” he continues, “and that I’m creating a refined image—more refined and more formal and maybe a better photograph. It’s more about the photograph as a photograph now, more so than the subject matter. It’s like music: It’s a song, but it doesn’t have lyrics. It doesn’t really tell a story as much as create a feeling. That’s been my goal all along. But I think with the stock industry the way it was, we all got kind of diverted. I’m not the only one; I think lots of people just started shooting something because it was selling. Now I’m shooting certain types of pictures because I think they’re better.”

Clifton claims that another benefit of shooting for himself is that he can avoid the burden of working on assignment for someone else. The pressure of meeting a deadline is a killer for creativity, and he’d rather have the time to focus on doing great work. When the shot is in the bag, then he’s ready to move on—but not a minute sooner.


“I like to find an incredible area that I can totally appreciate,” he explains. “It feels right; I’ve checked three or four different areas, and I pick this one; I’m going to work this place until I feel like I’ve gotten everything I need from this spot. I travel by boat a lot. I’ll go to the Inside Passage in Alaska and I’ll check out a whole little region by boat and I’ll find where I want to be exactly—where the best opportunity will be to make great imagery—and I’ll stay there until I feel like I’ve gotten everything I can from that spot. And then I’ll move on. I never have regrets, like I’ve got to go back there. I’m always in the present. So when I move a camp to my next camp, I’m done with the other one; I got exactly what I needed, and I move on. And I’m 100 percent there, working the next scene.”

Snow Scene
“Somebody asked my mentor, Phillip Hyde, ‘Is this an abstract? It’s just a detail shot.’ Phillip just looked at him and said, ‘Whenever you put a rectangle around nature, it’s abstract.’ It’s true. We’re manipulating from the time we cut everything else out of the scene. It’s a huge manipulation of the natural landscape.”

Technological Changes
Aside from the creative adjustments, the last decade has obviously seen some technological changes for Clifton. Sometimes, though, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While the rest of the photographic world has rushed full-speed into an all-digital workflow, one group consistently sticks with film: the landscape photographers.

“Film has had almost 200 years of evolution,” Clifton says. “That’s why I’m still shooting film. This is a tried-and-true process. [Digital is] like 10 years old, really. What we have right now is nothing compared to what we’re going to have. It’s going to continue to evolve and change into an extremely powerful medium.”

Though he’s not shooting with a digital camera today, he knows tomorrow may be different. Clifton is no technophobe. After the film shoot, his workflow becomes all digital, and because of that, he has been freed to change the format that he primarily shoots—from 4×5 exclusively to mostly medium format.

“I’m still shooting all film,” he explains. “I still use a view camera, but I’ve switched to medium format. I have had to scan my entire library, working with Photoshop, doing all that…That’s been a major amount of work. I’m still shooting film, but I’m shooting in the medium format so it’s more fluid; it’s just less stiff.

“By switching formats, you learn a lot,” Clifton continues. “You learn an enormous amount if you shoot a 35mm and you move to a 4×5. If you get stuck in one format, I think you’re going to be a little stiff. A view camera is a very stiff format. But if you can work it and be fluid with it, it’s phenomenal. There’s no doubt in my mind it’s a more creative tool and with less equipment to deal with. The less equipment to get in between you and the creativity, the better.”

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“For us film photographers who have our library in film,” he adds, “digital has created like five times the amount of work we used to have. And a huge learning curve is part of the work also. But the end result is a much finer image and much truer to our vision. It’s just nicer. It’s a lot nicer.”

Clifton believes there will come a time—very soon, in fact—when he won’t have to scan everything he shoots. He’ll be serving his creative vision with a digital camera in hand.

Digital Manipulation Of The Landscape
carr clifton
Carr Clifton says some viewers decry any digital retouching of an image, but he’s quick to point out that it has always been done. And since it’s all in the service of a creative vision, there’s no right-and-wrong rule book.
“Some people complain: ‘Oh you’re digitizing and manipulating,’” he says. “Well it’s just an artistic expression. Now we can be even more of an artist. You have more tools and creativity at your hands. It’s phenomenal.”

Take cleaning an image of an errant pinecone, for example. Clifton explains that he does the same thing in the computer that he’s always done with film. “We used to digitally remove them anyway with the digits on our hands,” he explains. “Grab that pinecone and throw it out of the scene. People pretend ‘Oh, I didn’t touch a thing.’ But I don’t know. Moving the camera is manipulation. Move a little to the left or right… So taking garbage out of the picture? Absolutely. Taking a jet trail out of the sky? Absolutely. Taking the dirt off of it? Absolutely. Moving a person into the image? I haven’t done that. I haven’t moved a sky into the image either. I’d love to do that with some photos, but I haven’t done it yet. Pretty soon, nobody will even care. It won’t even be an issue. It’s all part of the creative process.”

“I think it’s like writing,” Clifton continues. “You have fiction and you have nonfiction. And you believe the person who writes a nonfiction novel—that it’s true. You know the fiction writer made it all up. It’s the same thing. We trust the news to have total truth in that newspaper; they didn’t make that story up. This is a creative endeavor. People can do whatever they want. If they want to change the color or put a bird in the sky, they can do it. There’s nothing wrong with that as far as I’m concerned. It’s just who wants to do it. I don’t care to, but if they care to, that’s their own business. As long as they’re not saying it’s nonfiction. If they’re claiming that this is true nature in their image, well that’s one thing.

“It’s like writing a story,” he adds. “You could have 10 people see something happen and then they all write a story about what happened. Well it’s all nonfiction, but people have accentuated certain things that happened—they each saw it from a different angle. It’s the same thing with photography—like when you make a print. You’re going to tell the story, and you’re going to put certain things in parentheses and you’re going to capitalize certain words. It still tells the truth!”

“Absolutely,” he says, “probably within the next six months. If you want to be more fluid in your image capturing, you need to be less stiff out there. You need to be quicker on your feet, to maybe photograph some things that, at one time, you didn’t want to expend the film [to capture] because you didn’t want to load the film that night in your dark bag. The fact that you can see the digital image right when you get it—what a phenomenal teaching tool. That’s unbelievable”

The biggest problem Clifton has with digital is the amount of extra work it creates. It’s not that he’s opposed to hard work—it’s just a tough pill to swallow when his tried-and-true approach produced amazing results over an entire career. He knows the new results can be even more amazing. He just wishes he could step in after all the bugs are worked out.

“Right now, we have the Model T,” he says of digital technology. “I want to be the driver, not a mechanic. But right now you have to be the mechanic also. And it’s really hard to immerse yourself into that digital realm with the computers and all the programs and things not working together. I’m not sure that artists are the best people to do all that analytical and mechanical work. We’re much more attuned to just going out and getting feelings from imagery. So at some point, we’re going to be drivers only, and I think we’re going to be extremely creative then. But we’ll know the workings of the mechanics of the machine. So we’re going to be stronger that way.”

“I think the creative curve is going to level,” Clifton continues, “and people are going to learn quicker. Photography, the visual aspect of it, is going to evolve so much faster now. The creativity out there is phenomenal. That’s really the goal. It’s not the detail and the sharpness of the image—it’s the feeling it gives you. Sometimes sharpness and detail give you that feeling, but most of the time it’s the image itself. And if you miss that image because you’ve got this slow, cumbersome view camera that you’re stumbling around with, well then you don’t capture what you really wanted to capture.”

Focus Control With Smaller Formats
“You know the Scheimpflug,” Clifton says of the principle of controlling the plane of focus in a view camera. “The focus near and far is probably the biggest one. You can work on perspective control in Photoshop. Yeah, that’s manipulation, but it doesn’t matter. It’s fine. I’ve shot some medium format where I’ll focus in close, focus far away and put the images together. That’s totally doable. The smaller cameras have such a depth of field that I don’t think it’s an issue anymore. Maybe because of that way of focusing, we large-format people have kind of gotten stuck in a certain style—shooting our toenails and the far mountain. And I think it’s been overdone now, totally overdone. I think there are better ways to see.”

manfrottoClifton’s Tools Of Choice

Toyo 4×5 field camera
Assortment of lenses
—every kind of lens that’s made in 4×5. “I think the 90 and the 240 are great lenses—I like them all. The photographers in different regions have learned to use different lenses depending on the subject matter they’re working with.”

Pentax 67 medium-format camera. Fujichrome Velvia film, Kodak film
on occasion “That’s how I manipulate in camera.”


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