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The Dream Chaser

Michael Routh finds inspiration in the solitude of the less-explored backcountry

Using a 4×4 that has been heavily modified to handle the most rugged of fire roads and trails, Michael Routh delves deep into the backcountry. When he gets to the point where the road ends, his legs take over and he hikes to remote, distant and seldom seen landscapes. Having left a successful business career behind, Routh has done what many of us wish we could. He has traded it in to be a full-time nature photographer. Above: Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Calif.

In Native American cultures, a dream catcher—a handmade decorated hoop with a net—is used to filter nightmares and snare dreams. Based along the dramatic Pacific Coast of California south of San Francisco, Michael Routh uses his camera to chase dreams. The resulting images make it obvious that he has enjoyed much success in catching them. Understanding that, in many ways, the journey itself is the destination, he has no desire for the chase to end.

Merced National Wildlife Refuge, Calif.

In 2010, Routh created Dream Chaser Media—a photography, video and film production company integrating HD technologies and Hollywood filmmaking techniques with years of marketing savvy gleaned from his 25 years in the computer industry. When he’s not on an official project, he spends his time exploring off-the-beaten-path areas of the western United States, camera in hand.

Outdoor Photographer: How has your previous career in the computer industry shown itself in your photographic work?

Michael Routh: When you own your own company, commitment to quality is everything; it’s your only differentiation. There’s something in business called TQM—Total Quality Management; it’s the American interpretation of how to get great quality. The Japanese version of that concept is Continuous Improvement, which I really like. For 25 years, I kept perfecting this type of marketing. Excellence is what you want to provide the customer. That’s absolutely what I’m about with my photography. I’m always trying to get better. For me, it’s not to be the best; it’s to be the best that I can be—continuous improvement regardless of how good or not good I presently am.

OP: One of the most compelling aspects of your landscape photography isn’t the terra firma, but the skies above it. It’s obvious that you see part of your frame as a very integral part of the overall composition.

Routh: Oh, to give me one cloud. Skies are clearly an important part of landscapes. The winter storms come in, and if it’s 100 percent chance of rain, I probably won’t drive two hours to Big Sur. But if it’s a 95 percent chance of rain, then I say there’s a five percent chance of amazing light, and I’ll make that investment of time. I did a photograph from the Santa Cruz Mountains that doesn’t have the epic geographical features, it does have the Pacific Ocean and beautiful trees, but I went out in one of those winter storms, got into position and waited. All of a sudden, the sky opened up and five “God beams” came down. I often break rules, including shooting into the sun, which can yield dramatic results.

Muleshoe Bend, Yellowstone National Park, Montana.

OP: Charlie Cramer said of your work that you tend to take difficult photographs and do them quite well. That approach, shooting as the French say, “contre-jour,” can give spectacular payoffs. There’s an intensity that can be absent or diminished when the same scene is taken with clear-blue skies and the sun over your shoulder. Are you using graduated neutral-density filters to help harness the skies?

Routh: I do use graduated neutral-density filters. I use those tools, but an important distinction for me is that I don’t do HDR, and I don’t do photo blends using multiple images. I’ve experimented with HDR, but I think the results don’t look natural. You have straight photography, you have fine-art nature photography, and then you have photo art. I consider myself a fine-art nature photographer, with my wildfire work being photojournalism.

OP: You’ve said in the past that the Four Corners region of the United States is among your favorite areas to photograph in the country.

Eureka Dunes, Death Valley National Park, Calif.

Routh: What I love about the Four Corners and the backcountry, in general, is the solitude and going to landscapes that aren’t the classic iconic landmarks in America that have been photographed a million times. I always strive to find original compositions. I believe that to be a great nature photographer, you need to be able to find your own classic locations, even if it means going back there 20 times to get the shot. The Colorado Plateau and the Grand Staircase-Escalante to a lot of people look somewhat featureless—to me, there are potential photographs everywhere I turn. I love finding a photograph that no one else has found before. That’s what drives me to do 15-mile hikes.

OP: You’re taking advantage of your physical ability to get to a location that might be inaccessible to others. Galen Rowell was an extreme example of that approach.

Routh: I don’t do anything to the extent of Galen Rowell. He was in a league of his own. I’m a scrambler, not a technical climber. Physical fitness is such a big part of life, in general, and for me, it’s an integral part of photography. I photographed Clouds Rest in Yosemite, which required a 14-mile round-trip hike carrying a 40- to 50-pound pack from Tuolumne Meadows to 10,000 feet and hiking out after sunset.

I drove up to the top of Wheeler Crest in the Eastern Sierras, which is a Rubicon-class trail. I’ll wheel to a very inaccessible location, then hike in from there and see what I can find. Some photographers are half scientists, and they’re going to the website, and they’re looking at the sun moving here and there, and I do an amount of that—you have to know the weather—but for the most part, I just try and “feel” where the photograph is.

The heaviest equipment I have for my photography is a four-wheel truck that’s critical to my methodology. I’ll use it to wheel way into the backcountry. I drove up to the top of Wheeler Crest in the Eastern Sierras, which is a Rubicon-class trail. I’ll wheel to a very inaccessible location, then hike in from there and see what I can find. Some photographers are half scientists, and they’re going to the website, and they’re looking at the sun moving here and there, and I do an amount of that—you have to know the weather—but for the most part, I just try and “feel” where the photograph is.

OP: What about camera equipment?

Routh: If I’m going light, I’ll put a Canon EOS 5D Mark II body in a Lowepro Sling with a 16-35mm, a 70-200mm and maybe two other lenses and some ND filters. If I’m going heavy, I’ll bring two bodies and add some prime lenses—the Canon 24mm and the 85mm. I carry in a big Really Right Stuff tripod with a big ballhead. As for safety and nature, I try and go in with multiple layers of clothing and also carry a GPS emergency-locator system. Ten miles in and you break an ankle and you’re alone, you can have a real problem.

OP: So most of the time, you’re doing these trips alone?

Routh: I would say 90 percent of the time, I’m on my own. I do take trips with colleagues, and I enjoy the great camaraderie among photographers. But I love the solitude of nature photography. I feel much more connected, not just to nature, but to everything. I’ve become much more spiritual because of photography. I don’t want to sound too much like a Californian—actually, I grew up in Connecticut and spent 17 years in New Jersey, spending two or three days a week in New York City wearing a suit. I didn’t do photography then. I did it in college, then as a businessperson, I got busy and gave it up.

Routh’s collection of images is lean on shots from the national parks. That’s not so much because he shuns the crowds, but because he often can’t bring his dogs. As a photographer who spends considerable time away from the trappings of civilization, the companionship of a dog isn’t up for compromise. Left: Wheeler Crest, Eastern Sierra Mountains, California. Right: Sunrise over Badwater, Death Valley National Park, California. At 282 feet below sea level, this is the lowest elevation in North America.

OP: How did you end up becoming a nature photographer?

Routh: I was 40 years old and looking for unconditional love, so I got an eight-week-old Rottweiler named Maggie. After three or four months with this puppy, I started hiking with her in northern New Jersey—it’s a beautiful area, close to the Appalachian Trail. The hikes inspired me to go to Brooklyn and buy a film camera. Often on a Sunday, I wanted to lie on the couch and do nothing. But Maggie would come and sit right in front of me and stare at me, saying with her eyes, “We are going hiking today.” So, in a sense, it’s because of her that I became a photographer. I then obviously became obsessed with the art of it and did everything I could to become good at it. A year and a half later after I moved to California, I got another eight-week-old Rottweiler I named Rocket. My collection of imagery isn’t as big in the national parks because if they didn’t welcome my dogs, then I wouldn’t do a lot of photography there. In a place like Death Valley, you can take your dogs way into the backcountry and share the experience.

OP: So you owe your career to your four-legged camera assistants. Perhaps the solitude aspect of what you do is important because you were surrounded by so many people in Manhattan for so many years.

Santa Cruz Mountains, California.

Routh: I feel my soul in nature. It’s as simple as that. It’s not that I’m a hermit or a recluse. I love the camaraderie. I was in Glacier National Park last summer and did an eight-mile hike with one of my friends—I love that, too. But I find, as a photographer, I’m much more creative when I’m alone. I’m floating and feeling where the shot is. And if it’s not there, I’ll run to get to the right place. I learned early on about how Galen would run in nature. I’ll run two or three miles if the sun is going down and that’s where the picture is. I’ll climb up a 900-foot rock shale in Anza-Borrego Desert to get to where I need to be.

When you go to a place like Glacier National Park or any of these iconic locations, you can’t go there and not shoot the classic shots, but you have to be willing to make the investment of time and effort in your own instincts and your own skill. “I know there are other shots out there.” And maybe in the end there’s not. You go out on a 10-mile hike and didn’t even take a shot. Scouting is a big part of nature photography. I do more of that when I’m alone than when I’m with someone else.

OP: In interviews with Galen Rowell, he told the story about how he chased a rainbow in Lhasa, Tibet, to get to the perfect angle to line up the end of the rainbow so it seemingly arched into the palace.

Routh: That story has motivated me. I think, “Oh, I’m not going to do it…” Then I think of that story, that five percent chance. Being in nature is a gift, it’s a dream. I can still wear a two-piece suit and do a stand-up presentation in a corporate boardroom as well as any person you’ll meet. But my heart, soul and spirit is being in nature and doing photography. When I see a mountaintop in the distance, my thoughts are, “How do I get to that summit, and what will I see when I get there?”

You can see more of Michael Routh‘s photography by visiting his website at