When I started photographing nature, I couldn’t really identify (nor did I think about) what exactly it was that I wanted to show people—I just knew that I wanted to enjoy and record beautiful scenes. This was good enough for me, and the fact that thousands (millions?) of other photographers were capturing similar images, of similarly beautiful scenes, was no concern to me.
But when I decided to make nature photography my livelihood, I realized that merely capturing beautiful scenes, no matter how beautiful, wouldn’t be enough—to truly succeed as a nature photographer meant distinguishing myself from the countless other photographers also capturing beautiful images. Uniqueness.
Striving for uniqueness doesn’t mean I don’t photograph the clichés (I mean, if it’s beautiful sometimes I just can’t help myself), it just means that I never set out to photograph something that’s already been photographed, in a way that it’s already been photographed. And I’m not satisfied if I’m merely duplicating something that’s been done before.
Of course uniqueness is in the eye of the beholder. But this isn’t really about whether or not I’ve succeeded in creating uniqueness—it’s about the realization that simply striving for uniqueness has helped me see nature better, and has made me a better photographer.
Another insight that has influenced my photography is the understanding that my favorite moments with nature are the private ones. This insight has led me to photograph only scenes that allow me to imagine a world untouched by the hand of Man. Browse my galleries and you’ll get a pretty good idea of the places and things that make me happiest: the moon and stars, water, weather pull me with or without a camera. My connection to Yosemite predates my memories. And Hawaii is simply heaven on Earth. I could go on.
And eliminating the hand of Man is why some of my previously best-selling images, scenes that include skylines, bridges, roads, and people are no longer in my portfolio. While I enjoy viewing others’ images of these scenes, they’re just not what I do.
Something else I’ve come to recognize is the desire to use my camera to reveal aspects of nature that exist beyond human vision, to help people see (and to remind myself) that “reality” is not limited to human experience.
In my May 20 post I shared a colorful moonbow—quite “real” despite being invisible to the human eye—that is a great reminder of the universe beyond our narrow human senses. And the dewdrop in today’s image—smaller than a match head, clinging to a blade of grass no larger than a matchstick—is a reminder that not only is our universe infinitely large, it’s also infinitely small.
This little scene was just one blade of grass, one dewdrop, among millions in a meadow beside Yosemite’s Merced River. I was helping a workshop student who was struggling for inspiration in a much larger Yosemite scene that included Cathedral Rocks, El Capitan, the Three Brothers, and a reflection. We’d been talking about ideas when I turned to answer a quick question from another student; when I turned back around she was on the ground about ten feet away, examining the tiny dewdrops everyone in the group (myself included) had ignored all morning.
I dropped down to the ground beside her to see what she had found and immediately forgot the larger scene. Because I’d photographed that large scene so many times, I’d arrived already knowing that I’d wrung all the uniqueness potential from this spot years ago. But getting eye-level with a blade of grass exposed a world that may as well have been invisible for the amount of attention it had received, a world that had been there all along, with this and every previous visit, in one form or another. I suddenly saw that each blade of grass, each dewdrop, had its own personality—relationships and idiosyncrasies that distinguished it from every other blade of grass and dewdrop.
Sprawled on the ground, as close as I was to my subjects, I was still in the realm of my own limited human vision. But I had my camera, with its very own reality. I replaced the ultra-wide lens (that pretty much automatically goes on each time I visit this spot) with my 100mm macro and got even closer—but why stop there? Stacking all three of my extension tubes (68 mm of extension) between my camera and macro, I had essentially shrunk myself enough to be granted insight to the previously unseen world within the dewdrop. Here we go, I thought as the inverted scene within my dewdrop snapped into focus, this is is what my camera is really for.
Just like the moonbow, this was an opportunity to reveal an aspect of nature to which most of us are completely oblivious. And I hope the next time I walk across a lawn and lament the wetness that has seeped through though my shoes and into my socks, maybe my irritation will be eased by the memory of the beauty of those dewdrops and the world they contained.