Photography Helps us Make Deeper Connections to Nature

January 1, 1023

What is Nature? Are people a part of nature? Why do we value nature or wild places? Why do we enjoy photography?

These are all deeply personal, subjective concepts. We each connect with nature in different ways, and we assign different values to it.

For the Manhattan resident, nature is a walk in Central Park, a chance to get away from the hustle-and-bustle of streets lined with taxi cabs and millions of other pedestrians packed shoulder-to-shoulder on sidewalks. For the residents of Anchorage, Alaska, it is our backyard playground. It is a short drive to be among mountains and streams, moose and wolves, where we can go to pick berries and sometimes hike without another person in sight. For the resident of Kiana, Alaska, nature is what is all around you, not something separate from you. It is the place where your ancestors have lived for thousands of years, where you harvest and gather the food necessary to feed your family.

My own concept of nature has evolved over time, as my life experiences have grown. As a child, nature was my playground. Whether the Pacific Ocean or jungles of Guam, or the dry Ponderosa forests of the Black Hills and nearby prairie with American Bison, nature was where I went to explore. I would capture small critters like preying mantises or American anoles or snakes, or collect rocks and fossils and minerals. As a wilderness guide in northern Minnesota, I started to understand the concept of ecosystem and the interconnectedness of things. After 23 years in Alaska, I see nature as all of these things and a place of renewal, discovery, and survival.

Why we have a camera and why we take pictures can also be very subjective and complicated.

As a kid, toting around my Kodak Instamatic X-15 camera, I was simply documenting my adventures and travels. I had no specific plans for those photos, I just wanted something to remember a moment by. During my time in the Navy, I received my first formal training. I began to learn how cameras work, how to use them to document shipboard life. But it was during my time as a guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness when I began to connect more with nature. It was the act of being surrounded by nature, in the deep wilderness of northern Minnesota, that turned my growing passion for photography toward nature. And it was there that I came to better understand what wilderness had to offer.

In his book, The Singing Wilderness, Sigurd Olson said:

Simplicity in all things is the secret of the wilderness and one of its most valuable lessons. It is what we leave behind that is important. I think the matter of simplicity goes further than just food, equipment, and unnecessary gadgets; it goes into the matter of thoughts and objectives as well. When in the wilds, we must not carry our problems with us or the joy is lost.

So let’s think about how we can connect to nature through photography. Put another way, how can we use the gadgets of photography to connect with the simplicity that nature offers? Most of us are used to the experience of taking a short walk to a viewpoint, snapping a photo, and maybe moving on. Viewpoints can be great spots to capture iconic images of dramatic landscapes. They provide an opportunity to take photos that other people will instantly recognize as being from a particular location. Perhaps when we are planning a trip, we might also research a location ahead of time and Google the top photo spots in the area where we are visiting.

These approaches can produce some nice images, but in many ways they shortcut the creative process and keep us at arm's length to nature.

So, what are some approaches to take that allow us to connect with nature through photography? Her are some approaches I have successfully used over the years.

1. Give yourself time. The most significant factor is allowing yourself time to explore the space. In the National Park Service (Fan Page) Facebook group, a lot of times people post questions about suggested itineraries, quite often hitting two or three national parks per day over a four-day period. My response is always to pick just one park and spend all four days there. When going on a hike, give yourself plenty of time to move slowly through the landscape. Give nature time to reveal itself. Allow yourself the time to simply wait and see what happens.

Glacial melt stream coming out of the toe of Byron Glacier, Chugach National Forest.

2. Explore! Do not limit yourself to locations you ave read about, researched in advance, or seen on social media. Pick a spot on a map and just go. Get away from the road, even if just a few hundred yards. Even if the weather is less than ideal, get out there and see what nature has to offer.

Color and Layers

Layers of fall colors along the Buck Hollow Trail, Shenandoah National Park..

3. Discover. Keep your eyes out for details that capture your attention. You never know what sort of gems you may find.

Red on Turkey

A lone red leaf rests on a Turkey Tail Mushroom along the Jeremy's Run Trail, Shenandoah National Park.

4. Examine. Once you have found a subject you find interesting, study it in detail from different perspectives, different distances.

Columbine View

A part of Western Columbine blooms hang out in the open along the Turngain Arm, with the Kenai Mountains in the background.

5. Learn. Through the process of discovery, you may find a plant or rock or bird or animal that you cannot identify. Take a picture of it and look it up! There are some good apps available to help with this, like iNaturalist or PlantSnap for plants.

But that is just the beginning of the process. The only way to become a good nature photographer of a particular type of subject is to become a mini-expert in it. For aurora borealis photography, you have to learn about the science of the aurora - what causes it, what conditions produce vivid displays, when the aurora is most likely to occur, and where are the best places to view it. For wildlife photography, you have to become a wildlife biologist, learning about habitats, habits, behaviors, breeding seasons and locations. It's a process that loops in on itself - the more you learn, the better you get at photography, the deeper connection you make to the subject.

And then there may be things that only happen at a certain time of year. You learn about when those events occur so you can be ready to photograph them. In doing so, you become familiar with what is happening throughout the year.

A brown bear feeds on a spawning Chum salmon in McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, Alaska.

A long exposure accentuates the details at a lower spill of Virgin Falls in Girdwood, Alaska.
Long Falls

A long exposure accentuates the details at a lower spill of Virgin Falls in Girdwood, Alaska.

Posted in Commentary.