He was a climber. An adventurer. An advocate. An armchair scientist. A writer. An educator. A photographer.
Galen Rowell’s unique combination of skills took him around the world, on assignment for organizations like National Geographic, Life, the World Wildlife Fund, and the National Sciences Foundation, to name a few. His impassioned photographs of the natural world graced multiple covers, propelling him to the status of a giant in the world of outdoor and adventure photography.
Photo by Warren Harding, via www.yosemiteclimbing.org
These skills gave him a wide range of insight into both the profession and lifestyle of photography – from how to pack for a job, to the ethical responsibilities photographers hold to the general public. And, lucky for us, he shared these insights with the world through his many columns and books.
Today, in our second instalment of Lessons from the Masters, we’re sharing with you 7 lessons you can learn from the work of Galen Rowell.
Not an outdoor photographer? Not to worry. Whether you photographs trees or toddlers, there’s something for everyone.
*Note: For proprietary reasons, we haven’t used Rowell’s photos here. We encourage you to check out his stunning images at his gallery. All of the photos in this post are from our own outdoor adventure to Vancouver Island.
1. Photography Can Enhance or Limit Your Experiences – Depending on How You Use It.
It’s easier than ever to document and share your life. Which means that it’s easier than ever to become a slave to your camera and feel like you’re missing out on really experiencing things. How do you find balance?
Rowell’s essays provide two helpful tips.
First, don’t photograph everything. In Rowell’s view, the most effective photos – the ones you and your viewers will be moved by – are the ones that communicate the value of an experience. Photos that aim to turn something into an experience simply by virtue of being photographed – they’re not so important.
“A series of images that match a person’s ultimate experiences can indeed provide multiple answers to that more pragmatic question: Which life experiences are the most worth living?”
So many of the stops we made on our recent trip to Vancouver Island were motivated by a desire to get a great shot. But the payoffs of standing in front of tumbling waterfalls extend far beyond the photos!
Second, use your photograph to propel you forward, not hold you back. To Rowell, the desire to take a great photo pushed him to chase experiences that he otherwise wouldn’t – experiences that were valuable to him even when the photos didn’t turn out the way he expected.
The take home: Use your photographic powers to enrich your life. Let the desire to ‘get the shot’ propel you to new places, but don’t feel like you have to document everything along the way. When you come across an experience or a feeling worth sharing, share it.
2. Packing Lightly Does More Than Keep Weight Off Your Back.
When it comes to packing photography gear – for a job or a holiday – you probably err on the side of caution. You pack a backup camera or two, naturally. You throw in your rarely used telephoto, just in case. And hey, why not bring along a film camera? Sure, your bag is going to weigh a ton, but it’s worth it to be prepared…right?
Not according to Rowell. As he puts it:
“Too much equipment interrupts the flow of emotional response that is the essential human element communicated in the best nature photography. Yes, the little things do mean a lot.”
Rowell knew that it didn’t take a lot to take a great shot, and so unless he had someone carrying his gear for him, he packed light. He wanted to focus on the job, not the weight on his back. As he saw it: “Ninety percent of my best life’s work could have been made with a manual body, a 24mm lens, and a telephoto zoom in the 80-200mm range.”
I’m terrible for overpacking gear. On our most recent trip, I listened to Galen and took only the essentials. All of my camera gear fit into this backpack (chargers, laptop and hard drive included) with room to spare. And I didn’t miss a thing!
The take home: When your bag is weighing you down, it’s hard to focus on the task at hand and your photography suffers, no matter what you’re shooting. Good work doesn’t demand a lot of gear, so don’t take more than you need. As your bag starts to fill up, consider: is that extra lens more likely to help you out, or hold you back?
3. Your Eyes and Your Camera See Different Things. Use That to Your Advantage!
We’ve all experienced it. We see an amazing scene, but when we take a photo, the resulting image falls short. The colors seem off, or the photo is littered with little distractions that we didn’t notice when we were composing the shot.
Rowell saw this discrepancy between his firsthand experience and his images not as a failure of his ability as a photographer or an anomaly to be dismissed. He saw it as an opportunity to learn. He dove into the world of cognitive psychology and camera design, discovering the predictable differences in the ways our visual systems and cameras represent the world.
Photographs tend to render things like shadows and reflections more solidly than we see them with our naked eye, especially when the distractions of the rest of the scene are removed – cool!
He learned how constancy phemomena don’t apply to photographic images the way they do when we see something firsthand, and that it takes purposeful effort to see in person the distracting elements in a scene that photographs make painfully clear. In understanding these discrepancies, he gained more control over the look of his final shots. He was better able not only to make adjustments that made his final images look more true to life, but also to exploit the differences for artistic effect – for example, by deliberately highlighting the blue tinge that snow takes on when photographed in evening light.
The take home: When a photo doesn’t turn out the way you expected it to, don’t toss it aside. Study it, looking for patterns between what your eyes saw and what your camera produced. Being able to approach a scene and understand how it will look as a photograph will open doors.
4. The Power of an Image Comes from Emotion.
Though Rowell took the technical side of photography seriously, to him it was secondary. The success of an image, to him, depended primarily on its ability to convey emotion.
“Human art begins to fail when it pursues not [a] central emotional response, but the barren polar opposites of a pure technical exercise or a found object with minimal interpretation, as in most outdoor photography that gives us the feeling, ‘That doesn’t do anything for me.'”
Before he pressed the shutter, he looked inward, asking himself what about the scene struck a chord with him and what he needed to include or exclude from the scene, and in what way, to effectively convey that feeling to someone else. Simple.
Documenting people’s reaction to (or interaction with) a scene can help your viewer get a sense of what it would feel like to really be there.
The take home: Look for scenes that make you feel something, then use your technical and compositional skills to bring that feeling to the forefront.
5. Great Photographers Don’t Take Photographs, They Create Them.
To Rowell, the success of a photographer depended on all the usual things: Practice, drive, ability. But to the mix he added something extra: Vision – the practice of visualizing an image before taking it.
“Strong personal vision is what National Geographic photographers and camera club winners have in common. The deliberate physical actions necessary to transform a previsualized image onto film to achieve success are…quite straightforward to learn.”
Here’s the idea: In visualizing an image – either on location or before you show up – you identify for yourself the elements that are key to the success of your image (things like strong lines, great light, or the organization of elements relative to one another). In doing so, you become better able to seek them out in the actual scene.
Without a vision, you’re in the dark, hoping to chance upon a meaningful composition. In the words of Rowell:
“The odds of winning the state lottery are better than those of randomly walking up to the optimum position for a photograph.”
You have to think about the shot before you take it.
Visualization can take you a step further. When you imagine the great shots you’re going to take, chances are that you’re more likely to put in the effort necessary to make it happen. As Rowell said, on his decision to leave a celebratory party upon reaching the North Pole in order to take photos: “I am certain I would not have done this if I hadn’t visualized possible images in advance and written out a list of ideas well before we arrived.”
The take home: Before you pull out your camera, imagine how you want your photos to look, and use that vision to guide your work. The strength of your photos, and your commitment to creating them, will no doubt increase.
6. The Best Time to Create a Photo is Now.
In one of his essays, Rowell tells a story about a job he took creating promotional images for a resort in Fiji. He knew he would be staying at the resort for a while, and so he approached the job leisurely – he’d walk by scenes with great potential, but he wouldn’t stop to capture them, knowing that he’d have time in the future.
Except that he didn’t. A cyclone hit and the rest of his stay was marked by violent waves and dark skies – not exactly what your client wants as promotional material for their luxury resort.
When we first showed up on Long Beach near Tofino, we didn’t intend to stay long. We figured we’d come back to shoot the next night, when we had more energy. We’re lucky that we eventually decided to stick it out and get the shots – the light that night was amazing, but the next evening was totally clouded over!
The take home: When you see a great shot, don’t assume it’s going to be there later. In Rowell’s words: “If it looks good, shoot it; if it looks better, shoot it again.” And make sure you do it now.
7. Don’t Wait for the Perfect Day.
Rowell was an avid teacher, taking groups out on photography-oriented hikes. Early one morning, he woke to stormy skies. As he tells it, he would never have gone out, if not for the fact that he had promised his group that they would head on a hike in search of photographic morning light.
That light they were after never arrived – instead, the group who turned up for the hike witnessed a stunning display of rainbows set against the dark clouds. And those who skipped the hike were sorely disappointed that they had missed out.
The experience left Rowell with some incredible images and, more importantly, a realization that there was a whole world of potential available to him – a world that he would have otherwise continued to ignore.
“If I had to choose between actively pursuing light that never happens in a wild environment or waiting out the rain in a hotel room until the sky is clear, I’d choose the ‘bad’ weather without hesitation. I’ve found over the years that the value of time spent in the wilds is cumulative, both with and without a camera.”
The take home: Don’t limit yourself by what you think will or won’t work. Experiment! Go out on days you’d usually stay in, get up early, stay out late. Make external commitments, if it helps you stick to your plan. The least you can walk away with is knowledge and experience – not bad!
Rowell spent 30 years pushing the boundaries of outdoor photography and publishing what he learned along the way – the lessons we’ve shared here provide only a snapshot of what you can learn from this master.
We encourage you to check out Rowell’s photography and his writing, in books like Mountain Light: In Search of the Dynamic Landscape, Galen Rowell’s Inner Game of Outdoor Photography, and many more.
His work can also be found online and in person at his gallery in Bishop, California.
Read More About the Masters
Want more from our Lessons from the Masters series? Check out the first instalment here: