Light—the essential ingredient for all photography. To capture the true essence of natural illumination, a photographer has to be able to read it, know its personality and quality, and translate it effectively on film or flash card. But while light is necessary for all photography, the landscape photographer has the extra challenge of featuring the elements of earth, sky and water.
For the past 30 years, nature photographer Craig Blacklock has successfully combined these essential elements in his photography of Lake Superior and his home state of Minnesota. One look at his new book, Minnesota's North Shore, and it becomes apparent he's at the pinnacle of his profession.
Capturing The Core Elements Of A Landscape
Blacklock remains to this day a lover of nature—a true naturalist by heart—and he views the camera as a tool to help him explore the natural world and use the resulting images to inform, educate and inspire others. "My skills as a naturalist taught me to be prepared to capture the right moment in the right light," says Blacklock.
When discovering a large, impressive landform to photograph, Blacklock searches for angles and foregrounds that will enhance the composition. "I put the landscape first," he explains. "What is it about the scene that impresses me the most? How can I convey the emotions the landscape has triggered within me?"
While considering the landscape, he also watches the weather. "I consider weather the deciding factor in whether or not a landscape has impact."
Placement of the horizon is also critical in the region where Blacklock photographs. "When working on the big lake, the sky and the horizon line are pretty dominant. If the sky is dramatic, I emphasize it, filling the frame almost entirely with it, forcing the horizon line very low as a grounding reference point. Contrarily, if the sky is clear or a monochrome, I may put the horizon line nearly at the top of the frame."
To further incorporate the core elements, Blacklock challenges himself to work with complex compositions. "I like landscapes that provide several elements in the composition," he says.
This complexity might take the form of several distinct compositions built in layers—a foreground that frames a middle ground that frames a background—each layer filling in the negative spaces. "I picked up this image-within-an-image technique from Pacific Northwest Native American artwork, which I loved as a young boy."
Blacklock also enjoys focusing on the smaller details of a landscape, using isolation techniques to emphasize only a portion of the landscape. "I love working with waves washing over stones," he says. "In these situations, I use a combination of scintillations, reflections, refraction lines, motion and color. If done right, these images can turn a simple beach stone into a sculpture that draws you in. You fill it with meaning from within yourself."
Landscape Photography In A Digital World
While continuing to rely on traditional techniques and approaches he learned from his father and from his generation of colleagues who ignited the nature photography profession in the 1970s and ’80s, Blacklock has solidly entered the digital world. "You still must use your vision to define what you feel is the perfect composition,"explains Blacklock," but at the same time, you must embrace the new technology in digital photography, editing and printing." He entered the digital world full-time three years ago with the purchase of a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II. "I have not exposed a piece of film since," Blacklock says. "While I still draw upon the thousands of film images in my files for books and calendars, all my new work is digital capture. "Blacklock has witnessed the superiority of images digital can provide over those of film." There has been a huge increase in the quality of the final products, whether done on an offset press or inkjet printer," says Blacklock. "The images have better color accuracy. Today’s film scanners, digital cameras and printers make anything produced even 10 years ago look pretty bad by comparison." In the field, digital has greatly enhanced Blacklock’s ability to capture images true to what he sees. "Perhaps the biggest plus for me, because of my subject matter, is the ability to handhold the camera from my kayak," he says. "I’m making many more images from perspectives I’ve never been able to work before, and those images are much closer to the way I perceive the environment."
|Blacklock's Survival Tips For Today's Nature Photographer
1 Go digital. Clean, high-resolution digital images are going to
trump 35mm film images, so get out in the field and create a new body of work.
2 Do it yourself. Whether making an inkjet print, developing your Website or self-publishing a book, inexpensive technology now exists that allows photographers to do what we traditionally have paid others to do.
3 Specialize in your subject area. Being a generalist in today’s world doesn’t go as far as if you can become the "photographer" known for a particular location, subject or even technique. Find a niche and stick to it.
4 Diversify your marketing. Don’t just think of magazines and books. Search out different markets, especially the obscure ones.
5 Devote yourself to developing your skills to the highest level. While building on tradition, offer something new and fresh.
6 Don’t be arrogant, but if your work is good, act the part of a successful artist. The world largely perceives you as you perceive yourself.
7 Be patient. It takes years to mature as an artist and often decades more for anyone to notice.
8 Give something back. This not only is the right thing to do, but it also makes good business sense to be seen as a good global citizen
For his book Minnesota’s North Shore, Blacklock has integrated both digital and film images. "I did a preliminary edit of the film images," says Blacklock. "I then filled in the blanks with the digital camera. Many of the digital images, all of which were taken during the past two years, would have been impossible with a 4x5 view camera or even my Pentax 6x7."
But Blacklock has embraced something else in the digital world—high-definition (HD) video. He explains, At the same time as I did the digital stills, I used an HD video camera to produce a DVD that will accompany the book. This was tremendously exciting for me. Often, I would return from trips trying to describe what was missing from the stills—sound and motion. Now I can share both, as each medium has its own strengths and weaknesses with different subjects. Many of my customers purchase my photography as a way of bringing nature into their homes, to extend their vacations. Video adds a level of emotion to this that still images can never reach." For the book’s two-hour DVD, Blacklock used a series of vignettes that, as he explains, "Makes you feel like you’re sitting on the shore for a few minutes, then moving on to another spot. It’s just Lake Superior, the ambient sounds and an original music track, which can be turned on or off." One of Blacklock’s favorite segments shows waves washing over pebbles into a notch in the bedrock. Says Blacklock, "The wave fills the notch with refraction lines flicking on the stone below the surface. As the wave recedes, the pebbles tumble down. It’s an endless rhythm, a natural dance wearing away over the centuries."
The North Shore Project
Blacklock has used Lake Superior as his primary photographic subject for more than 23 years. "For the North Shore book, I wanted to show there are still privately owned natural areas worthy of protecting," he explains. "My hope is that the book will help raise funds to further protect what’s left." For the book to sell, Blacklock knew he’d have to include certain iconic images of Lake Superior. "Just as you couldn’t do a book on Yosemite without several views of Half Dome, I needed to include Palisade Head and the Little Spirit Cedar Tree," he recalls. "I used a few images from the standard overlooks to give people a sense of 'yes, I’ve been there’ comfort. But I included several made from my kayak, presenting a new look to tired subjects."
The biggest challenge for Blacklock wasn’t in finding subjects to photograph, but rather logistics. "A kayak is really the only craft that makes sense," says Blacklock. "It’s seaworthy, yet can be pulled out on rocky shores in heavy surf. You need a dry suit to protect yourself from the cold waters, both when paddling and if you want to photograph while standing in the lake."
For Blacklock, however, the lake is part of him and using a kayak only enhances the connection he has with it. "Having spent months camping on its shores and kayaking beneath its cliffs, the lake’s rhythms became part of my own," he says.
Surviving As A Landscape Photographer Today
After more than three decades supporting himself as a nature photographer, Blacklock has watched the steady increase in the number of photographers trying to make a profession of their craft. He knows the competition is fierce. "I’ve been fortunate in my career," he says. "I found a subject that wasn’t being overphotographed. There’s a huge demographic related to it, and most importantly,I specialized in photographing it and making it mine. Everything I do in my photography business is designed to identify me with Lake Superior. I want to be as closely associated with Superior as Ansel Adams was with Yosemite."
The other plus for Blacklock is that Lake Superior remains a difficult subject for most photographers. "It’s still a rather virgin landscape, photographically speaking. Not many landscape photographers have the skills or equipment to get to the locations I photograph. Tossing $20,000 worth of camera gear into a kayak on a lake and battling four-foot waves, which can quickly turn into eight- to 10-footers, doesn’t sound sane to most photographers." For those wanting to break into this business, the concept of finding one’s own niche is something Blacklock strongly recommends: "If a young photographer tries to break into the field by going to the crowded national parks, they’re running headlong into the most intense competition. However, if they can develop good and deep files about an underphotographed area that has scenic quality, especially if it has high visitation, they have a much better chance of making sales and surviving in the business."
Even after 30 years, Blacklock remains committed to his craft, and most importantly, he still retains the childlike wonder of enjoying every day he gets to use his skills to capture nature at its best. "I’m as excited, if not more so, to get up and make images now as I was 30 years ago. There’s always something new to discover on Superior. I love to pursue fleeting moments of beauty and bring them back to inspire others."
To see more of Craig Blacklock’s photography, visit his website at www.blacklockgallery.com.
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