Expand your nature connections
Texture: Marigold foliage is angular and spiked, but the blossoms are smooth and fluid. Opposing textures adds variety. We can imagine marigolds as hosting a party where all are welcome!
Color: Analogous colors (colors next to each other on the color wheel) typically lend a sense of restfulness, but marigold's bright hues create a more vibrant and youthful quality. We can imagine marigolds as childhood friends who stick together.
Shape: Circles offer a feeling of connection, wholeness, timelessness, and cyclical movement. We can imagine the marigold community as an endless ring of belonging.
Read more on shapes here.
Mindfulness through photography helped me engage with a subject I'd typically avoid, the marigold taught me to listen more deeply (even to messages I may want to ignore) and my camera allowed me to see complex beauty where my eyes/brain/nose saw only irritation.
Channel the message of the marigold in your own practice by photographing something that disgusts you.
I'm not suggesting you force yourself into liking something or that you confront your deepest, darkest disgust. I'm talking about deepening your curiosity about something you might overlook or be turned off by.
When you see this disgusting thing from your camera's perspective, how do you feel?
Just a reminder, if you still feel disgusted, that's totally ok. You've just spent time honoring your own emotions and seeing from another's perspective. No need to force anything, your empathy muscles have been stretched!
Expand your cultural awareness
Most of us, without thinking, believe the nature images we share are Universal. The majority of us talk about composition from a certain perspective, we value particular aesthetics, we uplift a specific type of expert, we measure success with similar criteria. We rarely question this dominant narrative, but rather set it as the standard with which we compare everything else. But culture exists within nature photography, too.
When I worked in the photo industry in the late-90s/early-2000s, my perspective was that nature photography primarily centered adventuring into dangerous terrain in order to "shoot" sweeping landscapes, and "capture" high contrast, highly saturated dramatic images that would be enlarged to take up physical space.
With more options now (both for photographers and those who enjoy experiencing photographic images), the photographers I follow on social media are interested in slowing down, caring for the planet, and using their cameras mindfully. Because those are things I value, I have surrounded myself with others who have the same values and my perspective has become this: nature photography is for creating intimate landscapes, stunning beauty, and a sense of peace.
Traded for adventure, the quiet of the wilderness now provides peace. The compositions created are simple, soothing, intimate, and peaceful. Peace is a repeated theme. I'm not disagreeing with the idea of creating peaceful imagery, but I continually have this nagging (but funny and kind) voice in my head.
That voice is the voice of Cornelius Minor. Cornelius is “a Brooklyn-based educator who works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support equitable literacy reform in cities (and sometimes villages) across the globe.”
Cornelius then asked us to consider that not everyone would define a peaceful classroom in that way. Wait, what!? My brain screeched… I spent the past decade trying to achieve this peaceful vision... with little success! An entire decade of stressing about peace!! Ha!! But, when I'm honest with myself, my favorite class day ever involved debate, raised voices, and lots of laughter.
On this favorite day, we were experimenting with a short unit on art and emotions. I displayed “Sunny Day,” by Kenyan artist Mary Ogembo.
Many South and South East Asians said: “Happy. Sunshine. Warm. Easy. Ahhhhh, feels good!!”
Many East Africans said: “Hot. Tired. Working.”
One particularly outspoken West African woman stood and, with her whole body, said: “No good. Working. Working. Hot! Too hot! Tired! No good!!”
It took me a year or two after this experience (when I started teaching Workplace Readiness) to understand that my students weren't the only ones with cultures that influenced their perceptions.
I feel that if we are ever going to live in a more peaceful world, all of us must realize that we each have a world view shaped by our culture and our personal experiences, and that our world views impact the way we understand/experience life events.
I believe that nature photography changed with digital - more access, fewer expenses = images that are less grand adventure and more "everyday." I'm also seeing it change with the pandemic - reduced ability to travel = images that are near home and closer...more macro. How could we be intentional about including the perspectives of those who've never been able to afford grand adventure? How could we be intentional about including the perspectives of the local photographers who get overlooked by travel photographers? How could we let "unheard" (ignored, undervalued, intentionally silenced) voices tell their own stories rather than telling their stories for them?
If we're not intentional about expanding photo culture to include a variety of perspectives, the culture will remain essentially the same.
This concern is the foundation for why I insist that only sharing beautiful images and educating people about nature will NOT solve our social and ecological crises. There are innumerable, easily accessible nature photos, communities, and documentaries, and, yet, we continue to destruct our planet - photographers included. Let's try something deeper, more complex, and more relational to get to the root of the problem. Explore a list of books I recommend for this approach here.
My work is heavily inspired by Japanese aesthetics, which you can read about here. I make sure I understand the underpinnings of this inspiration/influence as deeply as I can (not just as a technique, but as a way of life based on culture, history, spirituality, environment) and I give credit where credit is due.
Next take a look through someone else's images and consider.
- How are their images similar or different?
- How are their cultural backgrounds similar or different?
- Have you only noticed images and stories that reflect similar perspectives? Or do they reflect different perspectives?
- How do you view photographers who don't have all the latest gear?
- How do you view photographers who center technical expertise?
- What's your criteria for who you follow on social media?
- Have you surrounded yourself with images created by folks who see the world through similar lenses? Or are you surrounded by diversity?
- If you are inspired by other cultures, how can you ensure you're respectful and not extractive?
Now that you have a good idea of your preferences and influences, ask yourself, "am I living the values of this aesthetic?" For example, if you value minimalism, check for excess in your camera bag, home, closets. If you value the Slow Photography Movement, check for speed in your schedule, extra-curricular activities, modes of transportation. Some of our preferences may serve us, our communities, and Mother Nature well, and some of them may need to be dismantled to create a deeper sense of relationship and reverence for people and the planet.
As nature photographers who want to help shape a more nurturing culture, it's important we acknowledge that photography can serve as an accessible, culture-shifting art form when we are intentional, considerate, and honest about what influences our images, and when we live our lives with those same values.
EXPANDing "nature Photographer"
Before I talk about my personal experience, I want to share a bit about my professional experience. I went to school for photography in 1999, worked in the photo industry from 1996-2007, and, though I was never a professional nature photographer, my nature photos have been in art shows and gallery exhibits. In addition to public displays, I've also created several commissioned pieces of nature-based photographic fine art.
I share this not to establish expertise or claim anywhere near perfection in my images, but to highlight the fact that my personal experience as a woman supersedes my professional experience and conditioning as a trained photographer. I'm grateful this is the case, because nature photography has the potential for providing healing when we expand our views.
As a divorced woman who photographs solo and has been twice diagnosed with and treated for violence-related PTSD, there are a few things I do differently than many who call themselves nature photographers.
- I remain vigilant of my surroundings. For me, staying safe means I need to be able to move quickly. I travel light, I don't use a tripod, and I rarely set up in one location for an extended period of time. Traveling light is not only good for me, but less gear means less nature destruction through less production.
- Visit the Slow Photography Movement's blog to read my article "Relational Nature Photography."
- I keep mid-day hours, regardless of the location. Full sun isn't considered ideal for most nature photographers, but being out in broad daylight makes me feel safe and gives my stressed-out body the Vitamin D it struggles to produce.
- Visit the Slow Photography Movement's gallery "There is No Bad Light" for a collection of images made in full sun.
- I center myself and my relationship with nature. While out, I've come across folks who warn me to be careful, who tell me what/where to photograph, and who run me off trails. I don't allow these interactions to shape my experience, unless I choose.
- Read my blog using lines and shapes to notice and honor your subject's energy.
- I honor my comfort-zone. Lately, that has been my own neighborhood. I don't let my need to stay close to home and photograph within the city make me feel less of a nature photographer. Plus, staying close to home makes me feel like a better steward because I am on my feet rather than in my car.
Staying close to home provided a bit of comfort and connecting to the natural world within my city neighborhood provided a bit of joy. Because my mind and body are still a bit heavy at the moment, I'm only going to share a simple, one-sentence insight: there are many ways to connect with nature and many ways to serve as nature photographer.
choose supportive styles
The style of photography you choose at any moment has the potential to express your current state of emotion and/or help shift you to a different state. Both options have their benefit, but, either way, the benefits are maximized when you're using your camera intentionally.
Before I move into my personal insights on how I perceive photo styles, I want to be clear: this is by no means the only way to view the purpose of macro and landscape photography. Feel free to take what you want and leave the rest and/or adapt it to your own personal experience. Continue reading below for ideas on how to use macro and landscape styles of photography to support yourself.
This perspective became vital when, at the end of November 2016, I was uprooted from my life - work, home, social circle, region, etc. Over the next four years, I didn't really have my own home. I was fortunate to be hosted in other's homes in Minnesota and in England, Scotland, and France. While I always had a loving place to land, the losses, big and small, kept on coming.
My photography became more "universal" during that time, as I found myself making images of nature's details regardless of where I was living. Even when I was feeling homesick or like I couldn't survive another loss, picking up my camera got me closer to nature and I felt comforted. I didn't need to worry about the bigger picture, what was coming next, or how things were ever going to improve.
Try using macro when you're feeling overwhelmed by change and uncertainty
and/or to provide comfort to others.
Even though I still gravitate toward macro and I'm not great at landscapes, I choose intimate landscapes to express my gratitude for returning home. I can now use that photo style to reconnect to a bigger picture perspective and see more expansive beauty without feeling lost and untethered. I've also found that, without all the constant change and crisis management, I sometimes start to ruminate about what's happened in the past and I begin to feel isolated. When I get too focused on this narrative of loss, I can pick up my camera to get a broader view.
Try using landscapes when feeling overwhelmed by repetition and rumination
and/or to provide connection to others.
After having a broken wrist that prevented me from making photos during a very stressful time, I can attest to the fact that this strategy can also be used without a camera. With or without gear, no matter what may be going on in your life (and there is likely a lot going on), you can use macro and landscape perspectives to support your emotional needs.
Embrace Subtle Beauty
Point-and-shoot was my basic strategy for making images the first many years of my photography practice - even after going to school for photography, knowing all the rules, and possessing the technical skills. Don't get me wrong, there are benefits to making snapshots and I still make them 21 years post-graduation. Practice is vital for refining your art, but continual refinement and clear intentions is what differentiates snapshots from art.
It wasn't until I had life experience, a refined perspective on beauty, and something I felt I needed to say, I finally began to use my camera settings and the rules of composition in an intentional way. In other words, I may have known what I was doing, but I didn't know why or what I was trying to say.
Recently, I was beginning to wonder if I was communicating my intentions (yes, I still cycle through wondering if my art is saying anything to anyone, which is also valuable for refining your story), when artist & poet Gabriele Glang gifted me with this compliment, "Imperfection, wabi-sabi, haiku - I'm thinking your images are beautiful because they are spare, focused, elegant, concise. In fact, they are poems, to my mind."
Wabi-sabi and haiku are Japanese artistic concepts, and my photographic style was informed by a life-changing experience in Japan. Feeling seen in this way inspired me to share a few ideas about how to create photographic poems.
Before I share my ideas, let's take a moment to breathe in this elegant painting by Gabriele from her "Pond" series, where she returned to the same pond over and over, sensing its subtle beauty through the seasons. Visit Gabriele's poetic pond paintings here.
Back in Japan, I learned about the design concept miegakure (hide and reveal) which gave me the seed for how I wanted to transform my photographic story.
Miegakure is used to create awe-inspiring gardens that encourage visitors to slow down, to contemplate, to experience mystery and anticipation.
A similar approach is seen in Yamato-e style art, where clouds and mist are used to obscure parts of narratives told through large scroll or screen paintings. The idea behind this aesthetic style reminds the viewer that life is a mystery, that imagination is vital, and it suggests you'll never know the complete story.
Enjoy a few of my favorite Japanese photographers:
Nyoro: See their work here. Follow them on Instagram here.
Eiichiro: Watch their short film here. Follow them on Instagram here.
akiyama: See their work here. Follow them on Instagram here.
fujicco: Follow them on Twitter here. Follow them on Instagram here.
And with that intention for my life, I have been experimenting and slowly refining my artistic voice to express delight in our world's subtle, mysterious beauty.
Here are a few ideas for adding subtle beauty to your images:
Try looking for hidden subjects. Often, I find my subject nestled within shrubs, rocks, leaves, etc. Use the "nest" to hide elements of your main subject.
For this image, I intentionally placed my jade rock (also from Japan) within my houseplant during a mindful photography event hosted by Tonya Peele on the meditation app, Insight Timer.
Try breathing on the lens (put a UV filter on your lens to prevent damage) before making your image - the results are unpredictable, uncontrollable, and impermanent. And also soft and subtle.
For a deeper perspective on the breath and why I believe subtle beauty is important to the culture of nature photography, read my article "Relational Nature Photography" on the Slow Photography Movement blog.
Try framing your main subject through foliage in the foreground, right up close to your lens. This gives a "painterly" effect.
I was able to do this much more intentionally after watching Kathleen Clemons' course "Creating Painterly Photographs" on Creative Live.
Try simplifying your composition by getting clear about your subject and using your camera to support your intention.
For ideas on how your camera can help you, read my blog "Into Simplicity" here and download the free PDF reminder.
Try writing haikus for your images. Putting words to your images helps you notice your composition in new ways, from there you can continue to refine.
Read my collection of haikus inspired by current events, deep emotions, and nature's guidance through it all.
Nourish your LIfe and Photo Practice
Since moving back to St. Paul, MN four months ago, I’ve encountered more woodpeckers than I’ve encountered across my entire lifespan. There’s a Pileated Woodpecker I often see in my apartment courtyard and, because of my woodpecker neighbor, this is the first year I’ve known their laughter. It might’ve taken me 41 years to understand the theme of Woody Woodpecker, but I finally get it. I hear you, Woody!
Over the decades, I’ve become very aware of my sensitivity to sound. In fact, I think sound was one of a few factors in my divorce. I have a high startle response; I wake up to subtle noises in the night; I can’t have my stereo volume past four on a scale of eleven; my skin crawls when the TV is kept on for "background noise"; if I'm lost while driving or there's snow/rain/traffic, I have to turn the car radio totally off; and I have heard "damn, you have good hearing," by more people than I can count. It’s often a curse and can be a point of contention. Today, I intentionally focused on the blessing.
When I went to my local park to share the nature love this afternoon, I knew I was going out to focus on sounds because of a prompt from fellow mindful photographer Kim Manley Ort and her 2021 project "Seeing Clearly." In the woods of my local park today, and pretty much every time I hike there, I hear the woodpeckers.
Specifically, I heard a Pileated Woodpecker. For a more biological and ecological perspective on this amazing bird, please read this creatively written blog by Ken Bevis, a DNR Stewardship Wildlife Biologist, "Just About the Coolest Bird Around: the Pileated Woodpecker."
Back in the woods, I heard the knocking first and, when I froze on the path to locate the source, I heard tree bark raining down directly in front of me. And there was Woody, pecking away!
Side note: I do not have the gear, the skill, or the patience for bird photography. Please enjoy this playful image by Jeanette Mayo. See more of Jeanette's work here.
Suddenly, it dawned on me: Woodpeckers don’t move when nourishment is being received and, when nourishment ends, they fly away, laughing joyfully! I started thinking about how many times I’ve banged my head against the same person/problem/experience over and over, even when it was not the least bit nourishing. That’s exactly how I stayed in an unhealthy relationship for nearly a decade.
>>> I need to take a quick detour from this woodpecker metaphor to acknowledge the sudden, tragic passing of my ex-husband in 2019. I grew up (literally and figuratively) through our relationship. May he rest in peace. <<<
Nature photography is an experience I'm happy to continue banging against. It's something I've worked at for 25 years and, while the intention behind it has evolved and there have been real challenges I've had to overcome, it has been mostly nourishing - even when I don't get the image I intend on the first attempt or the final attempt!
I've attempted to photograph this tree with the woodpecker excavations multiple times. This last time, I followed the woodpecker's lead and made micro-movements between exposures. Here's an example of how minor movements can change an image. What do you notice about how the micro-movements changed these two?
This project is a demonstration of collaboration...and mutual admiration.
This experience offered a lesson on vulnerability.
Theses photos are an experiment in perspective.
Many thanks to Ann for sharing this day with me, for photographing me so beautifully, and for bringing new insight to a beauty lover's perspective.
Just as the rule of thirds, which can be read by clicking here, leading lines is another concept that can easily be found on Google, but here I'm using shapes as lines. Shapes still keep the eye moving, and they also have the potential to communicate a more personal narrative while enhancing the traditional approach with greater meaning.
Before I move into my personal insights, I want to be clear: this is by no means the only way to view leading lines, shapes, movement, or any abstract concept. Feel free to take what you want and leave the rest and/or adapt it to your own culture, values, spiritual beliefs, and personal experience. Continue reading below for examples of how to use lines and shapes to tell a story.
Horizontal Lines: Stable, Calm, Balanced
In the images below, I find the horizontal composition of the yellow marigolds more pleasing than the purple coneflower. The marigolds have a more connected, peaceful presence. Their inherent shape and unique essence work well for creating stability, calm, and balance.
Interestingly enough, finding two or more coneflower blossoms that were naturally in a horizontal line from each other was a real challenge. After this experiment, I'm quite certain they don't have any intention to be viewed as stable, calm, and balanced!
What nature subjects offer you stable, calm, and balanced feelings?
Vertical Lines: Dignified, Powerful, Majestic
Two or more subjects on a vertical line create a dignified, powerful, majestic image. Imagine the vertical line as a majestic pine tree.
It was fairly easy to frame both of these flowers species in a vertical line, though finding more than two lined up was easier for the marigolds. In any case, I feel both flowers pull off majesty.
Diagonal Lines: Active, Dramatic, add tension
I think both flowers are able to pull off the drama in the images below, but here the marigolds are benefited by the dark, contrasting background and the diagonal running both ways - one with the full blossoms and one with the unopened buds. Although it was easy to frame both this way, I prefer the drama and movement created by the coneflower blossoms and there were a multitude of natural options for finding them on the diagonal.
What nature subjects offer you stable, calm, and balanced feelings?
Circles: Comforting, connective, Timeless
Multiple subjects forming a circle create a scene that is gentle and comforting, and offers a feeling of interconnection. Imagine the circle as a ring of belonging.
Personally, I love circles and it was quite easy to spot them in both flower species. Flowers as a whole represent wholeness, timelessness, and cyclical movement.
What nature subjects offer you comforting, connected, timeless feelings?
Download a simple reminder for "Lines" at no cost - money or email address.
I've been aware of this rule for two decades, but it wasn't until very recently that I noticed a pattern of mine: I tend to place my subject on the right side of the frame and either have a secondary subject or leave empty space on the left (when looking through the lens). Once this came into my awareness, I started to get curious about why that is, and what I came up with is based on my culture, values, spiritual beliefs, and personal experiences.
I already knew that I valued photography because it facilitates a spiritual, mindful, and calming connection with the Earth. What I came to realize over time is that my ways of understanding the world connect the feminine, subtle, receptive with the left side, and the masculine, strong, active with the right side.
As I looked through my images, I had a sense that when I left space on the "feminine," left side, I felt called to slow down, take space, go inward. Using that insight as a baseline, I created a personal framework for using the rule of thirds to communicate a more personal narrative through images and to enhance the traditional approach with greater meaning.
Before I move into my personal insights, I want to be clear: this is by no means the only way to view the rule of thirds, feminine/masculine, mind/body/spirit, or any abstract concept. Feel free to take what you want and leave the rest and/or adapt it to your own culture, values, spiritual beliefs, and personal experience. Continue reading below for examples of how to use the rule of thirds to tell a story.
For portraits, we were taught that lowering the camera and looking up created a sense of power and greater presence, and that raising the camera and looking down created a softness and a gentle presence. To be honest, we were also taught to photograph men looking up at them to make them appear more powerful and women looking down on them to make them appear thinner. So, there's that...
What I like about photographing nature subjects in this way is that is looking up helps me understand the big, powerful, and all-encompassing perspective of nature and I feel a part of that power. In looking down, I feel a sense of awe for each tiny detail in nature and I feel humbled to be connected to such wonder.
Mind: Placing the subject at the mid-line creates a pragmatic image.
If you want to communicate a sense of purpose, try placing your subject in the center of the frame.
Body: Placing the subject at the high-line creates a powerful image.
If you want to communicate a sense of strength, try placing your subject at the top of the frame.
Spirit: Placing the subject at the low-line creates a prayerful image.
If you want to communicate a sense of reverence, try placing your subject at the bottom of the frame.
Download a simple reminder for "Thirds" at no cost - money or email address.
When making intentional photos, it's important get clear about your subject first. While walking in the woods, the light and shadows of the leaves called to me. At the moment I heard their whisper, I stopped to make this photo. I knew right away it was too busy for my taste, so I set about experimenting with simplifying the scene. Continue reading below for examples of how to simplify your images.
Once you're clear about your subject and are ready to use your camera to tell more complex stories, intentional camera blur is a great way to experiment with using your technology to tell your viewer more about your subject. For a simple, well-structured tutorial on shutter speed, camera gear, and intentional blur, please check out "10 Great Tips to Capture Unique Motion Blur Photos," a beautifully composed photo blog by Anisha Singh at Pixpa by clicking here.
Download a simple reminder for "Simplicity" at no cost - money or email address.
Kristin Perry is a nature photographer navigating life's complexities by focusing on beauty.