Spend enough time viewing landscape images on Facebook and Instagram and it soon becomes clear that dramatic spectacle and saturated color generates the most fan attention. Fueled by this knowledge, photographers seeking online praise try to outdo the drama and color of prior images, both their own and others’, with every shoot. The unfortunate consequence is a photographic feedback loop where one ostentatious image spawns increasingly ostentatious images, which then encourage even more ostentatious images, and on, and on….
This accelerating cycle reminds me of Top 40 music, where one breakthrough success generates a flood of uninspired clones. Catchy tunes are fine for a few listens, but few possess staying power and are soon forgotten. Contrast that to artists like the Beatles (am I dating myself?), who aggressively resisted repetition of prior success in favor of new sounds—sounds that the world has been listing to pretty much nonstop for nearly 60 years.
Admittedly, few artists are blessed with the Beatles’ creative genius, but that’s no excuse to shortcut your own creativity. As with music, images that elicit a reflexive Like and Share from digital passersby, and (if you’re lucky) maybe even a “Stunning!” in the comments box, are usually forgotten with the next click. But images that resonate on a personal level by revealing something unseen, or by touching a hidden place inside the viewer, have the power to grab people in their tracks and not let go.
Of course this sounds great in theory, but how is it accomplished? If the answer were easy, we’d all be doing it. But, like Dorothy and the Ruby Slippers, perhaps we’ve had the power all along.
Because most people long for a connection to the world around them—not simply a connection with nature, but also a connection with kindred souls—a good place to start would be to give viewers of your images something of yourself to latch on to, by concentrating on subjects that resonate with you.
Which might be why my own photography took a significant leap forward when I started photographing simply to please myself. In other words, the more I pursue moments in nature that touch me personally, (as if by magic) the more unique, gratifying, and successful my images became. While my most personal images don’t please everyone, the people they do reach seem to feel a deeper connection than they do to my images intended to impress. And best of all, they make me happy.
About this image
I’ve spent many hours at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, roaming the banks of the incomparable Little Colorado River near its confluence with the Colorado River. I’ll never forget my reaction the first time I saw the Little Colorado’s impossible blue. I had no inkling of what was in store when I hopped from the raft and rounded the corner, but when that blue hit my eyes I stopped short and stared for a few seconds trying to process it, then spun around and strode back to the raft to tell my lead guide, “We’re going to need more time here.”
Despite all the time spent here (and admittedly, it hasn’t all been photography—on warmer days my group enjoys cooling off by floating down a natural water chute about 1/2 mile upstream), I’ve struggled to make images that I feel really does the scene justice. But last year something clicked when I started looking closer, emphasizing the intimate beauty at my feet: the juxtaposition of red, white, and blue water and rock; the rock’s rich texture; the curves, angles, and levels of the limestone layers; and the play of the river among all these elements.
This year I took my look-closer approach a step further. After spending a hot afternoon at the Little Colorado doing more swimming than photography, I rose at 5:00 the following morning to return along with a half-dozen hardcore photographers in my raft trip group for a solid hour of just-plain-photography (taking advantage of our campsite directly across the river that allowed us to shuttle back and forth). While I landed that morning with no real plan, after a handful of uninspired clicks I came across this little rapid that stopped me in my tracks. Exactly 101 images later it was time to hustle back to the raft.
That’s right, 101 images of this one little rapid—and it was probably the most photography fun I’ve had all year. Every single frame was different from the others, and know I’d have found 101 more unique captures if I’d have had time.
Using my Sony 24-105 G lens on my Sony α1, I started with a tighter, horizontal composition, refining until the framing felt balanced, then ran a series of shutter speeds (by varying my ISO) ranging from 1 second to 1/100 second in (more or less) 1-stop increments. Then I’d find a new composition by going slightly wider, and occasionally changing my position and orientation. For each composition I’d use a similar series of shutter speeds, though it wasn’t long before I decided that the range I liked best was between 1/2 second and 1/30 second. (I like shooting motion with a range of shutter speeds so I can defer my final choice until I can view everything on my large monitor at home.)
Not until the last 10 minutes or so did I expand my composition enough to include the red rock platform on which I stood. Sometimes it takes working a scene for a while to distill it to its truest form, and it turns out really I love the strong diagonal this originally overlooked addition adds, not to mention the extra color and texture.
Like many of my favorite images, I know this one won’t accumulate the abundance of Likes that a landscape icon beneath a vivid sunset might, but it’s these intimate frames that capture the essence of the scene that make me happiest.
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.