Find Your Own Wilderness

Regular visits to a location near home can help hone your skills and yield photographic insights that can only come with time and experience
Find Your Own Wilderness

Sunset panorama, the American River, Sacramento, California. Photo by Lewis Kemper.

Outdoor photographers are always searching for the next “best” photographic location. They travel hundreds and even thousands of miles to take pictures, often bypassing their own “backyard.” Yet within 30 miles of everyone’s home, there’s some wildness to be found. Whether that be an urban park, an undeveloped woodland, a pond, lake, river, a refuge or state park, all you need to do is explore and you can find something interesting to photograph nearby.

Two years ago, I moved near the American River in Sacramento, California. Little did I know it would become the focal point for my photography. The American River Parkway is visited by more than five million people a year. Most of them bike or run along the paved trail that runs 23 miles from Sacramento to Folsom. During the summer, people flock to a few local parks to swim in the river. Others float rafts down the river, and there are dedicated fishermen trying to ply the waters, but these numbers are small compared to those who experience the river from the trail.

When I first moved to the new house, I began to look for a good location where I would be able to take sunset and sunrise pictures. I found one about a quarter of a mile from my home and began to go there periodically. Knowing that great light makes a great photograph, I was a bit disappointed in the cloudless skies that are the summer norm in this part of California. I soon realized that every day may not be a good picture day, but every day would be a good river day. I started timing my excursions to the river for rare summer days with good clouds. By coming back to the same location time after time, I became familiar with the area, and I could tell by the clouds and sun whether I would need to be facing west into the sunset or east to see what the sun was lighting up. I experimented with different focal-length lenses and different angles, even though the area I was returning to was fairly small.

Find Your Own Wilderness

Sunset on the American River. Photo by Lewis Kemper.

I soon came to realize that I could only experience a small slice of the river trying to photograph from the shore. If I really wanted to experience the area, I needed to be on the water. Once I got my kayak, a whole new world of photographs opened up to me. Not only did the landscape change, but I also discovered there was an abundance of wildlife that I never saw from the shore.

Wanting to truly experience the river, I decided to see what it was like in the early morning, and I discovered this was the best time for photography. For the most part, unless we had spectacular clouds, the morning light was better than the evening light. I also discovered the wildlife was much more active in the morning. So began my habit of going out at dark before sunrise, walking my kayak down to the river and photographing for several hours at a time. I learned all the good places to photograph, where the birds, otters and beaver like to hang out. I began to feel like this part of the river was “My Stretch of the River.”

I rarely saw another human out at that hour, except for an occasional fisherman. And as summer progressed through autumn and on to winter, I frequently found I was the only person on the river, yet I could hear the drone of the cars on the interstate less than a mile away.

Watching the seasons change, I became aware that most winter mornings begin with a low fog over the river, which makes everything appear magical and mystical, adding atmosphere to my images. Some days, the fog was too thick to even launch the kayak because I could barely see more than a few yards in the distance and I didn’t want to take any chances hitting rocks or snags in the water. On these mornings, I would spend my time photographing from shore until the fog lifted enough to paddle.

Find Your Own Wilderness

Great blue heron, the American River. Photo by Lewis Kemper.

Winter gradually made way for spring and a whole new set of subjects appeared on the river. The birds and mammals had their young, flowers grew, trees turned green and everything was bursting with color. In short time, the flowers died off, the bright greens began to fade and I came full cycle back to summer.

In that first year, I spent countless hours photographing the same one-mile stretch of river over and over. People would ask me if I got tired of photographing the same thing all the time, and I would reply, “I’m photographing the same location over and over, but every day is different.” The real challenge is making new and interesting pictures day after day while visiting the same location. By taking on that challenge, I grew as a photographer.

You can find your own private wild area with just a little bit of homework. One of the best places to start is to look at public parks nearby—anything from a small urban park or preserve to a larger state park or refuge. Another one of my favorite areas to photograph is a small nature center a few miles from home. It’s a small oak woodland of about 80 acres. Most people walk through and just see a few paths among the trees, but when I go there at sunrise, I see so much to photograph.

Find Your Own Wilderness

Tule, the American River. Photo by Lewis Kemper.

In the center of our city, we have a large park with a nice garden and a large duck pond—something as simple as that could be your wild place if you let it. Look for any bodies of water. Whether it be natural or man-made, reservoirs, lakes, ponds and rivers all have lots of great photographic potential. I find maps, Google Earth, photo apps and, of course, word of mouth to be invaluable when trying to scout photographic locations. Just remember, the first time you look at your location, it may not jump out at you as a great place to photograph, but give it a chance, try it out at different times of the day, different times of the year, and be willing to look more carefully than you’ve looked before. As Thoreau said, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”

The time I spent on the river has made me a better photographer. I think if you return to a familiar location and have to work at trying to photograph something new or different, it helps you learn to see and to appreciate the nuances that make a great photograph. It’s easy for someone to go to Yosemite or Yellowstone and make nice images; the scenery is just so fantastic you can’t miss. But try going to a place most people would find ordinary and make nice pictures day after day, and your skills as a photographer will grow in leaps and bounds.

Find Your Own Wilderness

Double-crested cormorants in fog, the American River. Photo by Lewis Kemper.

The little discoveries you make in your own personal wild area translate to anywhere you travel. You learn to fine-tune your composition, to anticipate and predict what the light will do. You learn just how much underexposure will drop your shadows to black or how much depth of field you need for a particular scene. Once you get proficient at making nice pictures there on a constant basis, you’re ready to take on any challenge a new location can throw at you.

Lewis Kemper created the multimedia presentation “My Stretch of the River: A Photographer’s Journal.” Watch a trailer and purchase or rent the video at