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Of old dogs, new tricks and the freedom to connect—digitally speaking

Looking at Cannon Beach from Ecola State Park, Oregon, under storm light.

I’ve been at this game for a while, but in truth, I feel I’m doing some of my best work right now. Shooting with these amazing new digital cameras, I find I can be more spontaneous, more immediate and reactive, and so, get closer spiritually and visually to what I’m feeling and seeing.

All my experience comes quickly to mind and hand when I’m in a place, trying to connect the near to the far, to connect the viewer to the power of the landscape. And it’s more alive in a way now, more intense and sudden, because I can use the digital camera’s quick responsiveness to match my own response to the subject.

Wherever I go, I’m looking for what I call natural connections between past and present, between presence felt and presence remembered.

In earlier columns, I’ve talked about my desire to motivate you to look at the natural world and involve yourself in the subject; to become a part of it; to let it speak to you, then through you with your images.

For much of my career, I’ve used the 4×5 view camera. It’s a wonderful tool that helps create stunning imagery. But you spend much time setting up the tripod, making sure the camera doesn’t fall off the head, then ducking under the dark cloth to compose and focus a composition on the ground glass—upside down, at that.

I’ve seen photographers spend too much time struggling with their equipment. “It’s not responding the way I want,” they’ll say. “It’s too heavy; you have to be so careful; it fell on the rocks,” and so on.

I want technical considerations to be a sidebar at most for what I’m feeling at the moment: how to capture the changing light, or drop down a foot lower for a whole new outlook without a lot of work.

Digital cameras have delivered me, to some degree, from all that technical distraction. The immediacy of handheld shooting is a delight. It’s easier to creatively react to the unpredictable.

And what really fascinates me is being able to review how the image connects with my original seeing, right on the spot.

I still carry a tripod along.

Using digital equipment, I’m feeling as strong right now about my work as I ever have. I feel I’m still evolving as a photographer, that I’m in mid-stride on my creative journey.

I’ve been working with the Panasonic Lumix FZ50, a compact camera with a built-in 12x optical zoom. I also work with another, newer Lumix with an 18x zoom ratio and a Canon PowerShot G10.

These cameras let me handhold in the near dark, although the image does fail when you push it too far. I’ve also learned to avoid noise and grain by using the ISO 100 setting, no higher.

I still handhold in dim light, but brace the camera on top of the tripod for stability. To make long exposures of water scenes, I use up to a 4x neutral-density filter to get slower shutter speeds.

As you can tell, I still make images based on my past experience: I’m just able to be more spontaneous.

So these days, instead of cumbersome setups with the 4×5, it goes something like this: I’m alive with all senses right in the middle of a cold, gray, sea-spray dawn on the northern Pacific Coast. There’s a sea stack in the ocean in the distance, a monument of black rocks and primeval grays, and a focused sunbeam on the ocean, in the midst of a rainsquall.

The whole thing is a timeless moment with the drama of sea to rock to sky. When I look at the image, I’m back there, feeling the bite of onshore wind and salt spray.

And that’s a natural connection, between past and present, between presence felt and presence remembered, that I’ll take any day.

Over the course of some five decades, David Muench’s work has been celebrated in more than 50 exhibit-format books such as Plateau Light and Eternal Desert, as well as innumerable exhibits and permanent installations. See more of his images at