Better late than never? Maybe. For me, oftentimes the hardest part of writing is deciding where to begin. That’s how this post is starting out. Where do I even start with talking about last year? It was certainly one of the most stressful years of my life and it can be easy for me to dwell on those types of things. The second hardest part of writing is to actually get the words from my head to the computer screen. That has been very tough lately and this post has taken me an embarrassing amount of time to write. But instead of giving any sort of weight to the negative side of the scale I want to focus on the things that are good and the things that I am grateful for, because there are plenty of them and I don’t think that the world talks about those types of things as much as it should.
Despite the challenges thrown towards myself and my friends who own small businesses, 2020 was a good year for me as a photographer. I’ve grown and have become more comfortable in many ways and that’s what this post is going to be about. I’ll break it down into a few sections: Overview, Favorite Images and the Thoughts Behind Them, Gains, and Goals Moving Forward.
Up until 2020, I largely tried to fly under the radar. Meaning, I just produced my work and put it out into the world, never really seeking out opportunities. I honestly just felt like I didn’t have much to offer aside from my images. I’d call it imposter syndrome, but imposter syndrome implies that you believe you’ve reached a “level” or “status” you didn’t deserve. I don’t think I’ve reached any sort of “level” or “status” so I’m not sure what term could be used to describe how I felt and still feel to this day.
In 2020 I tried to ignore that as much as possible. I knew that if I wanted to continue to do this for a living then I really needed to step outside of my comfort zone and “put myself out there”. I made it a point to seek opportunities, never thinking that they would work out and I was surprised when they did. Some of those opportunities are what helped to point me in the right direction both as a businessman and, more importantly, as an artist. They were opportunities that enabled me to talk deeply about how I approach photography and what it means to me. They were opportunities that really got into what I view as the most important part of photography: how it enriches my life, enables me to have a deeper relationship with the beautiful world around me, and brings me comfort and solace. It was a refreshing break from all of the talk about technique and equipment that seems to dominate a lot of the photography industry.
I was encouraged by the response. There always seemed to be a common theme of what people appreciate about me and my work: that my work is emotive and that my writing is relatable and vulnerable. Since I didn’t understand why people thought that I never really considered making it a central theme in my business. I tried to sell the same types of services as everyone else – services based more in technique rather than concept. This new approach caused me to at least feel like I had something that was mine – something that I might be able to offer to the world that came from my heart. And even though I still don’t understand it, I’m grateful for the positive support. I’m now more comfortable sharing that deeper side of what nature and photography mean to me, and I feel more freedom to allow myself to be vulnerable with my photography as well.
I made a lot of discoveries during the year. I explored my motivations and tendencies and I stumbled upon answers and realizations about my work and myself as an artist. I experimented, explored, I progressed, and I shot from my heart. I grew in a lot of ways and it blows my mind that 23 years after I started my journey in photography I am still finding out who I am as an artist.
FAVORITE IMAGES AND THE THOUGHTS BEHIND THEM
In 2020 I released 47 images and I love many of them. I have never felt so connected to and excited by my work and picking favorites for the year was a tall task. But here are my picks in no particular order:
TAKEN: JUNE 13, 2019 • RELEASED: AUGUST 12, 2020
105MM • ISO 500 • f/8 • 1/500s
This is an image of Latourell Falls. Over the last 12 years I’ve visited and photographed Latourell Falls more times than most other waterfalls in Oregon and I’d never captured it in a way that I felt was special enough to put into my portfolio. Each time I photograph it I’m drawn to the texture of the waterfall and the columnar basalt cliff face that it plummets from. The tall height of the waterfall (249ft/76m) allows the falling water to fan out into sheets, providing ever-changing textures, shapes, and patterns as it’s blown about by the wind. I normally interact with those aspects and have captured thousands of frames over the years showcasing the water texture and the basalt together. But it wasn’t until this day, when the late morning light graced the falls, that it all came together for me in a way that was special. It was a fleeting moment that existed solely for the people that were there. I framed up the shot to include the light and at first I thought nothing of it. I didn’t think that the image “worked” as I was taking it, but I had a memorable time interacting with the scene. Only when I got home did the image start to grab me as I would scroll past it and over a year later I decided to finally process it.
I love that this is the image I have captured of Latourell. It showcases the things that I love about the falls and it’s just another example of how light can make all the difference for me in regards to how I interact with a scene.
TAKEN: October 15, 2020 • RELEASED: October 24, 2020
220MM • ISO 64 • f/9 • 1/6s
These trees are on a hillside that I’ve shot many times in all types of conditions. The hillside that they’re on is across a valley from Highway 26, the road that goes to Mt. Hood. I have no doubt that most people marvel at this hillside on their drive to the mountain. I remember seeing the hillside and the view down the valley on my first drive to Mt. Hood many years ago. When you turn the corner you come face to face with a wall of trees before the road makes another turn and parallels the ridge. The hillside is a mix of textures with the conifers and deciduous trees and is always fun to shoot no matter the season. I often spend some time with them when I pass them.
On this day my girlfriend and I were taking a leisurely drive around the mountain. We hadn’t gotten out much because of the pandemic and it was nice to get some fresh air and see the scenes. We ended up at this hillside just as the evening light was gracing the tips of the conifers ‘just so’. I photographed a bunch of different compositions but I kept coming back to this arrangement. I just love it.
The processing was mostly based around getting the contrast (specifically midtone contrast) exactly where I wanted it. I wanted the shadows to be open enough that detail could easily be seen but I also wanted the light to stand out. This is always a tricky balance and I spend a couple of days going back and forth on how much contrast there should be. I even went back and adjusted it slightly after putting it on my website. But right now I’m very happy with it and wouldn’t change a thing.
It’s these images that really sit with me. Images of places that have meaning or moments that have meaning. It’s nice to photograph a place repeatedly and then one time unexpectedly you say “Yup. This is the one.” There are many places that I have photographed many times and I have shots that I like yet I’m still waiting for them to show me ‘the one’.
TAKEN: December 6, 2018 • RELEASED: February 6, 2020
230MM • ISO 100 • f/11 • 1/500s
This is one of those images that I really wanted to process but needed to wait until the right time to do so. I took this image a few years ago during one of my Oregon Coast Workshops.
There’s just something about blinding light that draws me in. I think it has to do with a curiosity of looking at and appreciating the things that we normally look away from and seeing what exists there. I find things that interest me when I shoot with a fast enough shutter speed to freeze it and/or a dark enough exposure to reveal it.
We had shot sunrise and were finishing up in the late morning when I perched myself on the top of a small cliff that overlooked the beach. There was a foggy haze in the air and the late morning sun had just started to peek over some sea stacks that are just out of the top of the frame, blindingly illuminating the surf and the wet sand that it left behind as it receded. I’ve interacted with this type of scene before but was never drawn to the resulting photos. What I love about this photo is the flow of the bisected composition with one side being dark and the other side being light and also the contrast in textures. The processing was fairly straight forward in just balancing the tones to make sure that the darks still had detail, the whites weren’t overwhelming, but that the brightness could still be FELT. There was some light cloning of distractions and the hardest part for me was deciding where to crop the image at the top edge.
It’s a simple photo that brings me a feeling of calm. I also feel that this image provided somewhat of a cornerstone for a bit of a deeper photographic connection to the Oregon Coast. While I had photographed and visited the Oregon Coast many times it wasn’t well represented in my portfolio. I suppose that I just felt more of a connection to the comfort of the forest. However on this trip my relationship with the coast changed and I found more and more things calling to me which ended up resulting in some of my favorite images I had ever captured along the coastline.
TAKEN: May 22, 2020 • RELEASED: August 28, 2020
105MM • ISO 100 • f/32 • 1.6s
This image is a special one for me. When lockdowns first happened my girlfriend and I hadn’t really left the house at all for nearly three months. Like most people, our spirits were down and we really needed some fresh air and sunshine. With it being a beautiful day in the spring we knew that most places would probably be busy with people so we opted to drive further east to find some space away from the crowds. We ended up at Deschutes River Park in the Columbia River Gorge and spent a good amount of time photographing the trees there. It was such a well needed and important trip that broke the spell that the lockdown had put upon us.
I really liked this image from the beginning in terms of concept and composition, but I have a tendency to write images off based on the raw file and neglect to consider their potential. This image was shot during midday and the raw file was very contrasty. You would think that with my tendency to shoot midday light that I would realize the potential beyond the contrast, however it took me a while to come around to it.
The processing was mostly based on getting the contrast where I wanted it which seems to be a common theme in my processing. I wanted this image to be bright and it was easy to take away from that with too much contrast. I also wanted the colors to be more pastel than saturated. Once I got everything where I wanted it there was some cloning of distractions and sky that needed to be done to finish it off.
I’ll always remember this image as a breath of fresh air both in finally getting some time outside as well as in how I interacted with the scene, creating an image that would be the lead image for my Figments of Place Collection.
TAKEN: October 21, 2020 • RELEASED: October 26, 2020
500MM • ISO 64 • f/7.1 • 1/5s
This is a concept that I stumbled upon during the summer while I was experimenting in Olympic National Park. I was really intrigued by the initial results and continued to play around and refine the process. This was a popular image on social media and I’m guessing that it was due to the mystery of the method, evidenced by how many times I was asked how it was done. While I understand the intrigue, I feel that figuring out how it was done took precedence over the image itself. To me this image evokes a feeling of walking through a forested meadow amongst the ferns as if they were trees. This is one of the things that I love about my Figments of Place Collection – it removes the literal representation of nature and leaves the image up to the imagination of the viewer. It doesn’t change anything about how I feel about the image, but I wish that there was more discussion around how the image made people feel and how they interpreted it instead of so much discussion on how it was done. In that regard I feel like the image itself got lost in the discussion.
I’m happy that there seems to be more and more discussion around the more emotional side of photography lately. That is where I get my kicks and that’s what I love to discuss. Technique is well covered in every corner of the internet. Gear is well covered in every corner of the internet. Anyone can talk about gear and technique. What I am trying to do with my photography and my business is give an opportunity to get away from that kind of discussion and get more into the meat of the what and the why. i.e.: WHAT are you photographing and WHY are you photographing it? Really think about it… WHY are you photographing THAT? I’ve given presentations about this subject and it never fails that most of the questions that I get after I pour my heart out are based around technique and gear. My hope is to continue to push the discussion towards what I feel is a more important and fulfilling aspect of photography: the why.
My answer when people ask me how this image was made is that it was made with years and years of exploration, experimentation, and curiosity. There was no linear path to creating this image and there were many things at play – frustration about my current work and the path that I was on, questions and understanding about my motivations, a lot of experimenting and learning of what works and what doesn’t work, ideas that I had and have been refining for years, and honestly, everything related in my creative journey was intertwined at the time and place that this image was created. That is how this photo was made – by digging deep, trying different doors, and asking myself “what if” I just turned everything I’ve been doing on its head?
If there is anything beyond the emotional response that I would want people to get from this image it’s that a seed of creative inspiration is planted for them to experiment, explore, and shoot from their heart. If you give yourself the freedom to tap into those three things then you just might stumble upon your own methods and techniques to create images that only you can create.
TAKEN: January 11, 2020 • RELEASED: January 20, 2020
200MM • ISO 320 • f/9 • 1/640s
If this shot isn’t a testament to what a lot of us went through in 2020 I don’t know what is. This is a powerful image for me, one that conveys strength and confidence to stand your ground while the world crashes around you. Every once in a while an image presents itself to me that just hits in a much more powerful way and this is one of them. Most of the time my images reflect more of a calming simplicity that can be found in nature because that’s exactly what I seek when I go out. But my heart is open to whatever is being shown to me and on this day it was the fury and power of the ocean – the kind of fury and power that puts you in your place in this world and the kind that really makes you appreciate the very small time and space that your life occupies.
In January of 2020 the Oregon Coast experienced an extremely high surf event. While I have witnessed high surf before, the swell height of 28-35 feet is on the extreme side. I took my son down to Shore Acres State Park near Coos Bay so that he, too, could witness the intense power and fury of the ocean.
Shore Acres is well known for its massive crashing waves. Compression resulting from the collision of the Pacific Oceanic Plate with the western edge of North America forces the rock to angle steeply to the east, creating a rugged set of cliffs just offshore that rise out of the surf to create the shoreline. When combined with high surf swells, the results are thunderous crashes that dramatically send waves hundreds of feet into the air, a raw display of the immense power of nature. Add to that the surrounding geology and the interesting weathering of the rock and it has become one of my favorite places to visit on the coast no matter the conditions.
Like many of our natural areas, high surf advisories at Shore Acres have become quite the draw to nature lovers and photographers. Watching the waves becomes addicting, always waiting for the next big one that will be bigger than the last big one, which was the biggest of them all. The thunderous boom and explosion of water is invigorating, especially for those who venture closer to the wave action, with the water and spray raining down onto the viewing area. It’s quite rare to find a place that puts you so close to the action yet keeps you safe. This is one of the major draws of Shore Acres State Park: the intensity and adventure without the danger.
The main attraction is the rock shelf to the north of the main observation deck. This is where “THE” wave happens. If there’s ever an image that you’ve seen of Shore Acres it’s likely been of that specific rock shelf and a crashing wave. However, the rest of the shoreline offers up a variety of cliffs all interacting with the high surf, and in my opinion, offering up a more dynamic scene with waves crashing their way into the numerous coves. While I have hundreds of images from other days where I, too, had pointed towards the north, on this day the way the midday light backlit the mist and crashing waves when pointed to the south was hard to tear myself away from. I got lost in my viewfinder with these waves and this scene, huddled under my umbrella behind a parapet to shield myself from the deluge of crashing waves and ocean mist.
Nature has always offered me inspiration, perspective, solace, and reprieve and I often find metaphors for life in my photos. This photo is yet another example of that for me. It gives me hope that I can confidently stand amongst the crashing waves of life and come out clean on the other side. It’s these moments in nature that I am drawn to the most.. the moments and scenes that touch me in an introspective way, and it’s those moments that I try to capture in a bottle.
TAKEN: February 18, 2020 • RELEASED: March 12, 2020
70MM • ISO 100 • f/11 • 1/80s
I took this shot on a solo day out on the Mesquite Dunes of Death Valley National Park while I was scouting before a workshop. It’s not the most amazing image but it’s one that brings me a sense of tranquility and peace which is something that I often find while out in the dunes, even with all of the hiking up deep sand. This day was no different. It was one of my first days in the park after many months at home. The escape from the gray damp Pacific Northwest winters to the dry dusty heat of Death Valley is something that I look forward to every year. I’m not sure why I feel so at peace in the desert as it has no significant relevance to my past. My thoughts are that when faced with the enormity of the sky, the vastness of the landscape, and the millennia of geographic process laid before my eyes, that I can’t help but feel a comfortable insignificance – an insignificance that makes me feel that all of my trials and anxieties are small matters compared to the grand scheme of things. It’s easy for me to feel that in the desert, particularly in the dune fields. This image captures that feeling for me. The simplistic curvature of the dunes, the weight of the sky, and the pleasing colors just feel so real and inviting.
As stated above I have a lot to be grateful for in terms of personal and professional growth in 2020. Here are some of the things that really helped push me in the right direction:
Out of Chicago Live- A goal of mine from 2019 was to seek out speaking and presenting opportunities and I was fortunate enough to be invited to present at the Out of Chicago Live online photography conference. I decided to do a presentation on something that I was very familiar with: photographing in the middle of the day. As I started to put together my presentation titled There’s No Such Thing as Bad Light, it took the turn towards being more about approach and mindset as opposed to technique. The response to my presentation was encouraging and was what initially caused me to think that maybe I should talk about these things more.
Interview on Vision and Light with Alister Benn- Alister is someone who I had looked up to for several years now and when he started to interview photographers who inspire me, I took a chance to reach out and offer my interest in being included. I honestly never thought that he would consider someone like me when he’s interviewing photographers such as Theo Bosboom, Guy Tal, Marc Adamus, Adam Gibbs, and more. I was shocked when he said yes and it was a pretty big turning point for me in how I view myself as someone who might have something to offer that is unique and personal. It was a great conversation about the deeper side of photography and what it means to us emotionally. I hadn’t really had a chance to talk about those things so in-depth with someone else on the same wavelength and I was happy with the answers I gave. He asked thought provoking questions, some around thoughts that I hadn’t considered before and some around things that I have spent a lot of time pondering and when all was said and done Alister and I were left with a mutual respect and a new friendship. He eventually asked me to partner up with him for another Out of Chicago online conference where we discussed our thoughts on being a “happy photographer”. I’m honored to have made a friendship with him and I look forward to seeing how it develops.
Shuttermonkeys Interview with Ian Plant- Another ‘chance’ I took was reaching out to Ian Plant about being on his new YouTube web series Photo Talk and again I was surprised when he said yes. This was a shorter conversation but it was nice to finally meet and talk with Ian who is an accomplished nature photographer and one of the first nature photographers I became familiar with.
Xtra Bytes with Xploring Light- A friend and past client reached out to me about getting together for an interview with my good friends Alex Noriega and Ted Gore. Xploring Light is based in India and it was an awesome conversation that went on for three hours!! Even with the length it was a good time as Alex, Ted, and I talk every single day in our messenger group and it was nice to have an actual conversation with faces and voices while also exposing us to a new market.
I released my first eBook There’s No Such Thing As Bad Light. This eBook was based off of my presentation of the same name and it was a lot more work to put together than I had imagined. I frequently get overwhelmed by large projects so it was encouraging to pull this off and I was floored by the response to it. In a year where I had to postpone the majority of my workshops, this small success was a great confidence booster and helped me somewhat avoid the anxiety that came along with the lost income from the workshop side of things.
I released my Figments of Place Collection. This was an idea that has been in the works since at least 2017 and has been filtering its way through my creative process. Starting in 2019 it became a little more concrete and I started to consciously explore this approach. I’m really happy with the work and it feels nice to be creatively invigorated again, when prior to working on this collection I felt stagnant and repetitive. There’s more to come with this collection as I am still in the discovery phase of it.
I started to work with a creative coach that Alister introduced me to. It’s been an interesting process and I have benefited greatly from the conversations and guidance provided. Jeff has helped me question the things that I know and understand and has caused me to consider what lies in the things that I don’t know or understand. It has also made me realize that there are even things that I don’t know that I don’t know about who I am, who I am not, and who I am not not. Sound confusing? It is. But it’s all very introspective and is helping me to explore the parts of myself and my creativity that have never been considered.
Jeff has also helped me navigate a creative struggle that I had last year where I learned that I approach photography in three different ways which I wrote about and tried to come to terms with in my post Literal, Experimental, and Casual. This is also another part of my creativity that is developing and something that I am continuing to work on finding comfort in and explore.
GOALS GOING FORWARD
Carrying over a past goal of trying to break some compositional habits that I have where I tend to frame most images in the same way.
Carrying over a past goal of trying to not let myself get overwhelmed by large projects.
Carrying over a past goal of holding myself accountable. This has been hard, especially in 2020. It’s easy to write off my lack of productivity as a result of stress and anxiety but in reality I just need to buckle up and be productive.
Carrying over a past goal to not be so reclusive and quiet. I’ve tried to be a little more present on social media and engage with the community more, but there is still room for improvement.
Carrying over a goal to write more. There are a lot of things that I want to write about but it gets hard for me to get everything down into words. I talked about this in my blog post Thinking and Documenting.
Become more aware of the tonal structure of photos independently of the literal visual structure. I tend to overlook how tonal values alone can be compositional elements.
Become more aware of things in the shadows. I focus so much on plays of light that I don’t look hard enough at the beauty in the shadows or let them capture my attention enough because I have such a tunnel vision for light.
Produce another eBook.
Make progress on the print book that I’ve been talking about for years. In 2020 it was my goal to start processing photos for the book and I haven’t done that yet. This goes back to goal numbers two and three and I need to do the legwork to find a publisher and designer to start making the attempt feel real.
All in all I’m happy with the progress I made as a photographer last year. I wish that my personal spirit was as invigorated as my creative spirit and I miss the feeling of “thriving”. Most days feel more like surviving but I’m glad that I have photography, nature, my girlfriend, and my son to add some brightness to my life. There is always something to be grateful for no matter how dark and scary the times feel and I just need to be better at recognizing those things more often. I’m very appreciative of the support that I’ve received this year and it means the world to me that people care enough to support this little dream of mine. I hope that the world starts to heal and that we can continue to find the space in our hearts to be kind to each other and that we can all continue to push towards our dreams with a little more fervor than we may have in 2020.