EXPANDing "nature Photographer"
Nature Photography can provide expansion to our lives when we refuse to limit ourselves by only seeking perfectly stunning views and rigidly defining "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.
February and March are difficult months for me. My movements become slow and scattered, my body becomes heavy and lethargic, and my thoughts swirl around both despair and hope. This year, I didn't have the external demands of full-time employment to force my body against these rhythms. It wasn't easy to sit in this season without distractions or accomplishments, but I can feel myself slowly emerging both stronger and softer this Spring. Nature Photography kept me moving - physically, intellectually, and emotionally.
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.
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Not all of us have the same relationship with the outdoors. That doesn't make those of us who are more vigilant less worthy storytellers or nature lovers. In fact, we may have more interesting and loving stories to tell. Let's not be afraid to share, witness, and embrace the unconventional stories. Instead, let's allow and celebrate complexity within nature photography and the locations we feel a connection.
When have you expanded your perspective on labels and rules to include
choose supportive styles
If we are paying attention, nature has a way of supporting our ever-changing emotional needs.
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.
Macro photography is my main style of expression. I find that when I take time to appreciate the little things, I'm less likely to take small moments for granted. When I can focus on everyday beauty, I find contentment no matter where I am.
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.
Macro can support feelings of closeness, timelessness, universality, and comfort.
Try using macro when you're feeling overwhelmed by change and uncertainty
and/or to provide comfort to others.
Now that I have my own home again for 2021, I've found my self creating more images that have a stronger sense of place again, too. Feeling more grounded and connected to a community that has always felt like home, even while away, my photography has begun to incorporate intimate landscapes that express the feeling of being attached to a particular place. The practice of doing things differently is a good mental challenge, as well. I've been using the Slow Photography Movement blog to get ideas on how to improve, but landscapes are hard!
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.
Landscapes support feelings of interconnection, exploration, and grounding in time/space.
Try using landscapes when feeling overwhelmed by repetition and rumination
and/or to provide connection to others.
If you're feeling overwhelmed by attempting to think ahead or want to focus on comfort, try framing the little details around you. If you're feeling overwhelmed by past thoughts or want to focus on connection, try framing the bigger picture. If you're not sure how you feel or what you want, try both and see what may arise.
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.
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Macro and landscape are clearly not the only styles of nature photography, if you gravitate toward a different style, consider what emotional need that style might be fulfilling. If you have insights to add, please share! You can either email me here or connect with me on Instagram.
How will you use different photos styles to support you?
Embrace Subtle Beauty
If we are paying attention, our personal stories have the possibility of influencing our photographic style.
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.
Experiencing the beauty of mystery in my own life, this aesthetic resonated with me - it even helped me reframe some of the most difficult events in my life. In staying true to Miegakure style, I will not be telling you the full story here, but I will say that, over the years, I have been learning to be less concerned with controlling situations and demanding tidy answers to life circumstances, preferring to instead to revel in a slow unfolding of this human drama.
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:
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We have all been directly confronted with life's mysteries as we live our way through a global pandemic. When you find yourself trying to control or rush to figure it all out, try taking a stroll through nature and turning your concerns over to her subtle beauty. See if it isn't just a little bit easier to embrace the mystery.
How will you bring subtle beauty to your images?
Nourish your LIfe and Photo Practice
If I wouldn’t have chosen divorce nine years into my past relationship, we would’ve been together 25 years today. Instead of growing through marriage, I continue growing and healing through nature.
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."
I watched Woody continue to peck at the exact same spot. Sure, there were micro-movements, but this bird never jumped trees or even to a new spot on the same tree.
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?
Here are additional perspectives to consider:
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I could come up with a long list of head-banging examples that were not nourishing, but instead I’ll end by sharing one of the ways I’m entering 2021 with greater woodpecker-like intention: moving forward, I will only put repeated effort into people/problems/experiences that provide (more often than not) mutual nourishment. And if it's time to move on, I will do so with (at least a little bit) of gratitude and laughter.
What nourishing situations will you put your effort toward in 2021?
Nature-based art supports a mindful life.
Over the years, I have tried multiple forms of meditation, but the one practice that has been the most consistent is mindfulness through nature photography. When I go into nature, I am fully alive, energized, and in-tune with the world.
Mindfulness and meditation are intended to help us fully drop into our lives. When we practice mindfulness, there are very real benefits:
Don't feel you need equipment, clothes, and/or a "guru." Of course, we all need support and there will be reasons to offer gratitude in the forms of money, but if you're spending an excessive amount of money on meditation/spirituality or if you notice your collection of gear and "gurus" growing exponentially, you are likely contributing to cultural appropriation and spiritual materialism. Be conscious of the impact of your spiritual practices and be aware of who is benefiting at what cost. If you feel you need more information, search "cultural appropriation," specifically, "cultural appropriation in the field of wellness," and "spiritual materialism."
If you become aware that you are causing or have caused harm, it's not too late to turn it around! Quit the practice, re-focus your intentions, make amends, and do better moving forward.
Since the terms mindfulness and meditation are abstract concepts, here are a few ways one might describe the experience.
Nature-based art is a wonderful tool in helping us to simply secure our connection to a meaningful, healthy life. Bringing nature-based art into our homes, offices, and social media spaces, we can receive the benefits of a mindfulness practice as we go about our day-to-day lives.
Here are three ideas for beginning a nature-based art mindfulness practice:
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Mindfulness is a practice; it becomes easier and more beneficial over time. Nature imagery can make your mindfulness practice simple, accessible, and stress-free. Look around your house for a piece of nature-based art and display it for a reminder.
Also, remember that mindfulness is a self-care practice to help you stay grounded and focused so that you can take action toward creating a better world - it is not meant to be a consumer product and it is not meant to stand separate from compassionate action. Keep it simple, get centered, and then use that divine Love to fuel the fight for freedom, equity, justice, and peace.
How have you used art + nature to stay mindful?
courage. creativity. curiosity.
exploration. inspiration. transformation.
These values have become the focus of my life over the 25 years I've been consistently practicing nature photography. Personally, I’ve found that photography has helped me to become more aware of my values, process my emotions, go safely and confidently into the world, and more easily find calm in times of stress and change.
These values are my constant guides and I keep them in focus by regularly getting out into nature with my camera. I’ve found that by taking on the challenges of making meaningful images with a camera, I've also been presented with ample opportunities to become more aware of my surroundings. And taking advantage of those opportunities has slowly transformed the way I see the world. I believe being thoughtful, understanding, and capable in making images inspires the same in living life.
Yes. It’s absolutely possible to make great images using your camera on automatic and pointing the lens at nature’s stunning beauty. To tell your story through images, though, takes self-awareness, thoughtfulness, an understanding of the way your camera sees, and an ability to navigate manual settings - even on a cell phone.
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How has your life been impacted by nature photography?
Kristin Perry is a nature photographer navigating life's complexities by focusing on beauty.
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