After almost 40 years of self taught photography – based on a lot of reading and study…and a lot of trial and error – I decided to participate in a workshop run by a professional photographer. I spent a considerable amount of time establishing criteria and assessing various options prior to choosing a workshop conducted in Olympic National Park by Ian Plant (www.ianplant.com) and Kurt Budliger (www.kurtbudligerphotography.com). I was fortunate in my choice – Ian and Kurt are masters of their craft and were exceptional in sharing their technical and artistic talent with the workshop participants. I believe I am a better photographer for the experience.
Olympic National Park consists of three distinct and unique ecosystems – glacial mountains centered around 8000’ Mount Olympus and drained by a radiating system of rivers and streams; deep valleys on the western slopes dominated by temperate rainforests; and an almost pristine 60 mile stretch of beach along the Pacific Coast. As the mountains were largely inaccessible due to winter snowpack, the workshop staged from Forks WA and focused on the rainforests and beaches on the western side of the park.
The Rainforests: Moisture laden air from the Pacific is forced upward by the Olympic Mountains to cool and deposit an average of 12-14 feet of annual rainfall and creating a group of temperate rainforests in the deep valleys that penetrate the western slopes of the park. Four of these valleys – Sol Duc, Hoh, Queets, Quinault – are easily accessible by road.
This first image was captured on the trail leading to Sol Duc Falls. I wasn’t expecting much of the falls – late in the morning and mixed light. I hoped, however, the combination of moisture-laden air and heavy side lighting might result in sunbeams through the forest. The key to this image was locating a tree big enough to block the bright sun but still allowing the halo to form. I didn’t expect the colors in the halo!
As a Florida-based photographer, I’m used to photographing in confined forests with no defined horizon. In these circumstances, a photographer needs to think small, focusing on patterns and details. Image 2 was taken just off the road into the Hoh Rainforest. This image is a direct result of Ian’s and Kurt’s mentorship – dominant tree trunks to the left countered by the narrower trees to the right and rear, branches leading the eye to the right and creating a triangle that opens to the ferns at the right corner, the ferns providing an opposing element to the larger tree trunks and to the brightness of the new growth. Although captured on a heavily overcast and intermittently rainy day, the element that makes this image is the inner glow of the new growth leaves.
I’m fascinated by the third image and keep coming back to understand why. On the surface, this is a very simple image about pattern and consisting of three horizontal elements. The ferns at the bottom provide a frame with their arches and angles leading the eye inward and upward. The new leaves at the top provide another frame with their glow offering a counterpoint to the darker ferns and tree branches below. Both lead to the intertwined branches at the center – simultaneously complex and simple – where I find myself returning to wonder what may be hidden behind.
My inclination is to photograph forests in even overcast light. This results in deep saturation and low contrast images and avoids the exposure challenges associated with mixed light. Ian and Kurt challenged this traditional approach by putting us in situations that took advantage of a more brightly lit day – with the resulting back and side lighting providing a dramatic alternative. Images 4 and 5 were captured on the road into the Hoh Rainforest.
In tight forest, a photographer needs to think small, focusing on details. In these situations, the seemingly inconsequential often provide the biggest surprises. I saw Image 6 – a group of 1-2 inch mushrooms on a nurse log – as a group of soldiers marching in formation. Perhaps the influence of my military background.
Sometimes mistakes happen that result in pleasant surprises. Image 7 is the result of mistakenly triggering my shutter release as I moved through the forest looking for subjects. Low light, movement, and an unfocused lens resulted in a surreal, impressionistic image of the rainforest. Would I have shot this intentionally – probably not. Do I like it – definitely yes. Have I added a new technique to my photographic tool kit – absolutely!
The Rivers and Streams. A system of streams and rivers radiate from the mountains and end in the Puget Sound to the east, Lake Crescent and Strait of San Juan de Fuca to the north, and Pacific Ocean to the west. These watercourses are fed by extensive rainfall throughout the year and glacier melt in the warmer months. Many of the smaller streams and resulting waterfalls are intermittently observed only during the wetter months. Image 8 is of a beautiful stream on the trail to Sol Duc Falls and is one of those locations where a photographer could spend the better part of a day capturing details in the various cascades up and down the stream.
During April and early May, when these images were captured, there are several waterfalls along the road leading to Quinault Rainforest. I believe many are intermittent or at least become trickles during the drier seasons. My intent with Images 9 and 10 was to isolate the falling waters against a strong foreground of moss-covered rocks and trees – hoping to create a more graphic image.
Image 11 was captured on the Sol Duc River downstream of the Salmon Cascades on an extremely rainy morning. What makes this image for me is the small tree in the foreground that fills the open water to the left side of the river and provides depth to the overall image.
The Coast. Along the Pacific Coast of Olympic National Park is a 60 mile stretch of almost pristine wilderness beach. This stretch is punctuated by a series of “named” beaches – Beaches 1 through 6 to the south, First, Second, and Third Beach midway, and the more creatively named Shi Shi, Rialto, and Ruby from north to south. Each beach has unique characteristics – sea stacks, driftwood, arches and keyholes, and tidal pools filled with starfish and anemones. Not particularly strong sunrise locations, the potential at sunset is exceptional.
Image 12 was captured at Ruby Beach after sunset. Based on Ian’s and Kurt’s mentorship, I captured a lot of images trying to time the oncoming and receding waves around the foreground rock to obtain the right mix of line and sense of movement.
Images 13 and 14 were captured at Beach 6 in the morning at a low tide. I’d captured several versions with the light dappled formation and reflection before I found the starfish to add the final foreground element.
The final image was captured at Second Beach after sunset and, to me, represents much of what I gained from Ian’s and Kurt’s mentorship. The small rock in the foreground provides a complement to the dark mass of the sea stack and counterpoint to the moon. The curved line of the sand and lines of the receding wave direct the eye from the foreground though the sea stack’s reflection to the sea stack itself. The brightness of the sand provides a counterpoint to the darkness of the sea stack. The color of the sky and beach complement each other but are broken by the orange glow of the setting sun. Finally, the small sliver of moon provides the final element that “fills’ the otherwise uninteresting sky. I find myself visually moving from element to element without getting stuck at a single spot.
Lessons Learned. As a former military officer, I learned that one of the first steps after a mission is to conduct an after action review – to document lessons, determine what went right, what went wrong, and what can be learned from the experience. I apply this process to each of my photography trips. In this case, the lessons are focused on my first photography workshop:
Be Patient. As a photographer, unquestionably patience applies to the environmental conditions and the light. The adage of not leaving a site until you can no longer see your hand was re-enforced on this trip. My favorite photo of the trip Image 15 “Moonrise Over Second Beach” was captured well after the sun dipped below the horizon and well after the rest of the workshop left for the parking lot. Which is a good segue to the next point. Patience also applies to the people with whom you photograph. With a group, someone is always last (in this case me) or someone regularly wanders into your sight line. Going to happen…and you can’t let these minor inconveniences influence your experience. The reality is that you’re not at work (unless you’re the workshop leader), you’re not at a desk – and if you planned correctly, you are in the midst of some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.
Be Flexible and Agile. The plan will change largely dictated by the weather. An unexpectedly overcast day may drive you to the forest and away from the planned visit to the beach. You may need to photograph between rain squalls to take advantage of the moment. These shifts require physical flexibility – shifting from one location to another – as well as mental agility – adjusting how you will approach a changing photographic problem. I felt that Ian and Kurt did a great job of adjusting locations to take advantage of conditions and keeping the group informed as changes occurred. To me, one of the greatest aspects of outdoor photography is the constant change – no two places are the same and no one place is constantly the same.
Know your Equipment. This goes without saying and is a lesson I’m constantly re-learning. I don’t often photograph in heavy rain. I purchased a LensCoat Rain Coat (www.lenscoat.com) because I anticipated wet conditions and didn’t want to be forced to shop shooting. Prior to the trip, I didn’t take the time to practice operating my camera with the Rain Coat. How hard could it be – right? We had some fairly heavy rain the last two days of the workshop. At one point, prior to putting the Rain Coat on the camera, I found the dampness caused the electronics to shut down. I had to remove the battery and reboot. Fortunately, there was a hiker’s cabin that allowed me to do so out of the rain. The Rain Coat was easy to install, but I had not practiced handling the camera, and found myself fumbling to adjust settings. I missed a couple of shots because I had the depth of field incorrectly adjusted. This was doubly annoying because I took these shots while lying on the wet ground with my bare feet in a very cold stream. This is a lesson learned constantly in the military – that you never go into the field with equipment not tested in training.
Take advantage of the opportunity to learn. As mentioned at the beginning of the blog, I’ve been photographing seriously for almost 40 years. The biggest lesson is experience has no bearing on the ability to learn new lessons – as long as attitude allows. I learned a tremendous amount from my fellow workshop participants – whether by discussion at a meal, in the car, or in the field. I learned a tremendous amount from the two workshop leaders – both technically and artistically. I’ll talk about the process I went through to choose a workshop in a future blog, but I believe I was fortunate in the choice I made for my first one.