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December 7, 2018

Shoot Local

By Michael Ryan

When I first started out in landscape photography I was drawn to bold, dramatic landscapes and all I wanted to do was capture my version of all the iconic locations with as wide a lens as possible.  Near/far compositions from talents like Adam Burton and Marc Adamus were a heavy influence.  So much so, that I often forced that perspective into my early work, even if the scene didn’t warrant it.

As a new landscape photographer it is very difficult not to be a product of who or what inspires you.  That is probably even more prevalent in today’s social media influenced age.  Yet, more often than not, time and experience will begin to shape your personal style.  New experiences, new tools and techniques or simply exposure to new places will all play a role in that process.  My artistic journey over the years has been no different, yet a significant part of that evolution was not a direct result of new influences or a reaction to changing trends.  I like to think my awakening was fairly organic and mostly accidental; the reason was right in front of me the whole time.

Unless your bliss is photographing vineyards and grapes, my “backyard” in and around California’s wine country is not typically considered as a landscaper’s paradise.  As a budding landscape photographer it was easy for me to look outside my area and plan my photography excursions around more well known locations, but one morning in 2009 is when all of that changed.  On a chilly morning in November, I happened upon an incredible scene.

 

 

I was completely stunned and awestruck by the slowly creeping canopy of fog blanketing the valley below and the beautiful burn of the sunrise clouds in the horizon.  At that very moment my perception of home was forever transformed and the phrase “beauty surrounds us” could not have been more true.  What I learned on that day was that my no matter where I was, the only real limitation I had to overcome was not the lack of interesting locations or unfavorable conditions, it was simply me.  Beauty was everywhere and all I had to do was venture out to discover my own icons.

With that, I began to heavily explore my local area taking just about every back road I encountered. I concentrated more on hiking at local regional and state parks rather than planning photography trips that were several hours away.  I consciously tried to “see” rather than just “look” with the intention of opening myself up to the landscape allowing it influence me and not vice versa.  I revisited locations constantly to see how they changed on a daily, weekly, or seasonal basis.

Approaching landscape photography in this way was invigorating. I had little outside influence from other artists and was forced to craft my location and composition selection skills on every shoot.  Ultimately, this entire shift in my approach made me a better photographer and played a large role in refining my vision of what could be photogenic and inspiring.  Around that same time my father, who is also a landscape photographer, loaned me his 80-400mm zoom lens.  Up to this point, my work was still dominated by wide angle or mid-zoom lens scenes that sometimes showed signs of trying to too hard to fit it all in.  Since then I’ve found the usage of a zoom lens, when practical, has opened countless more compositional doors providing the freedom to highlight smaller scenes within the larger scene.  Where one wide composition existed before, the zoom lens offered ten or more very unique compositions without having to move the tripod.  That amount of creativity at your finger tips is a powerful thing.

The beauty of landscape photography as an art form is that our compositional choices are truly endless and, I believe, for artistic growth to occur, we should never consciously limit ourselves.  In a social media driven world that trumpets iconic imagery, I think that sentiment is more true now than ever.  Although it is certainly not a bad thing to want to indulge in the reliable beauty of well known locations, I also believe it is important to balance that with exploring and photographing local and lesser known locations.  In my experience, there is nothing more satisfying than fulfilling your artistic vision at a beautiful place you discovered all on your own.