Dealing With Nature – Part 4: When It Goes Bad…

OK, why should you care about any of this woodsy stuff?  After all, we are all rushing headlong into 2020, for pity’s sake, the age of computers, robots, cell phones, the “internet of things” where everything is connected to everything else.  Where a bunch of you will head out to take your landscape photos WITH your cell phone and all of its functionality.  So, who, today, really needs any of this knowledge or these skillsets?

Good and reasonable question.  And if you live in a techno-bubble where the closest you get to real nature is a Sierra Club calendar, then baring natural disasters, power outages, economic catastrophe’s etc. have a self-recovering car, and an endless fuel supply and lifetime battery capacity, and then make sure that you never stray more than a few feet from the asphalt, then it is highly likely you’ll never ever need to know any of it.

That, however, does not describe me or my life or my photography quests.  So let me give you a personal example of how things might lead to an emergency situation.

A couple of years ago, in the early Spring, I had gone up to Oakhurst, a little town on the southern border to Yosemite National Park, to visit a great friend, Nikko, and to also take a few quick dips in the Yosemite Valley area for photos.  Nikko is owner of an incredible restaurant named “Bread Head” and if you are ever in that area and need some REALLY good food for breakfast or lunch this is the place. (  And if Nikko is there, be sure and say “Hi” for me.

Nikko is also an excellent photographer and, since she has lived there for quite a few years, knows the area very well.  So she suggested we head south around Bass Lake where there was some terrific scenery.  I wasn’t aware there was ANYTHING in that direction so agreed and off we went.

She was right, of course.  There were some incredible overlooks of the lake and, further south a quaint town and, to the east, according to the map, a way for us to take a loop through the forest and end up back on the Lake road.  So after a fun lunch we were off on our adventure.  (Remember what I had, in an earlier part of this series, defined as an “adventure?”)

The “main” road was old pavement, broken in places, littered with debris from recent storms and winds.  Clearly this was not a route that was heavily traveled.  But the day was clear and sunny, the company was great, and so we stopped a couple of times for photos before we found the side road through the forest.  It was, as are most forest roads, dirt.  But it was more or less level and clearly designed for normal cars… at least during the normal summer season…

We had gone a mile or so when we came on our first snow drift across the road.  Inspection revealed that it was only a few inches deep so we powered through it easily and kept on.   A second one, determined to be only slightly deeper, was also easily negotiated.

By the time we came on the third drift, although it was longer than the others, did not appear to be all that much deeper, so without further inspection, off we went…

And we made it almost exactly half way.

What was not evident under the snow was that this was also spanning a runoff channel and someone had previously powered through it when it was muddy and carved some deep ruts in it.  When I hit those, I was stopped and now my wheels just spun and polished the snow.  It was as if the tires were sitting inside watermelon peels.  We were not going anywhere, forward or backward.  Power-rocking the vehicle was useless.  True, it did result in some movement but it was not forward or back… only down.  That was definitely the wrong direction, so there we sat.

I’m relating this tale to illustrate how easy it is, on the best of days and with no intention or expectation of doing any potentially dangerous travel, to find oneself in trouble.  During that year’s spring season it was common for late storms to move through the area so this situation could turn very bad very quickly.  We were stuck because I had made a mistake.  The length of that drift should have gotten me out of the car to walk it and probe it better.  I could see the water channel above and below it but was preoccupied and it did not register.  All of the signs for caution were readily available but I didn’t see them or pay attention to them and because of that, there we sat, halfway into the drift on a road that, given the dearth of tracks and the heavy cover of leaves and debris, likely would not be traveled for quite some time into the future.

I got out to assess the situation.  I had followed the initial mistake with yet another mistake; in trying to rock the car I had simply dug a deeper set of holes for the tires.  Years of winter driving in Colorado mountain country apparently had taught me nothing or if it had, that knowledge had dribbled out of my brain during my sojourn in Southern California.  Fortunately there was one bit of self-advice I had taken, the car was equipped with some recovery and survival gear.  That stuff tends to just live in my vehicles so I do not have to think about it except to periodically resupply or update some of it.  Good thing too, “thinking” did not seem to be my major skill that day.  I’d love to blame my company but don’t think it would hold up to any real scrutiny.

So step one was to give it “The 30-Second Stare” and objectively consider the options.  There was no cell phone coverage so calling for help was not possible.  Walking for help could be a long and unsuccessful plan unless we would walk the 20+ miles back to the little town where we had lunch.  That had to be the plan of last resort.  That meant the best plan was to recover the car back to solid ground or at least on through the drift and hope for better conditions down the road; but in both cases we had to get the car out of that drift.  Without some equipment that would be impossible, and walking would be the only option remaining, poor as it would have been… (hint hint…)

In each of my vehicles is, at minimum, a backpack of survival gear plus some recovery gear.  It doesn’t take all that much room, so plenty is left for stowing photo equipment.  Here are a couple of views of my primary survival pack.

Survival Backpack outside

Here is the outside of my primary survival pack.  It usually lives in my vehicle.  I have another smaller version I toss in if I know I’ll have someone with me.  In addition to this there are ponchos, blankets and tarps that also just live in the cars.

Survival Backpack inside

Here is the opened pack.  (It’s actually a re-purposed camera backpack.)  This has, on and in it, enough to keep[ me surviving for quite some time minus food and water for the long haul.  What you cannot see here in the packed interior, is that behind the water filters and Swiss Army Knife is a fixed blade but shorter “bush craft” type knife.  Also there is a small sewing kit in the compartment with the first aid supplies.  The fire making materials include, lighters, matches, ferrocerium rods and some magnesium shavings, plus some home-made fire-starters made from dryer lint and bees wax. In with the magnifying glass is also a signal mirror and a sharpening stone.

In addition to the survival pack I also had an incredible multi-purpose tool I bought years ago and have never seen another quite like it.  It is a “Hudson’s Bay” style single-bit axe, but the head is cleverly designed to allow attachment of several other tools including a shovel, a pick, a rake/hoe, fireline “Pulaski,” etc.  (Here is a link to the company where you can buy one:

Max Axe Lay Out

This is the “Max-Axe” from Forrest Tools.  This photo is from their web page, my own set has a lot more wear and tear on it.  Designed primarily for foresters and forest-fire crews, it is incredibly durable and designed for heavy work.  I’ve had mine for almost 30 years and have had zero problems with it.

I also had my go-to knife, my big Shrade Bowie style knife; big enough to work as a small machete.  The main edge of the heavy 12″ blade is razor sharp and the recurve is sharpened with an edge profile more like a hatchet so it can do multiple chores.  As you can see, the poor thing has seen a lot of work over the years.

Schrade Bowie

This is my favorite outdoor working knife.  I don’t know if Schrade still makes them.  This 12″ blade is based on the “IXL” Sheffield made bowie design from the mid to late 1800s.  THe modern “sub-hilt” grip design really helps control the weight.  It takes an incredibly sharp edge.  My survival kits also contain smaller knives for fine work but if I had to head out with only one knife, this would be it.  I’ve made fires and shelters with small knives too but in a pinch, this is far faster when it comes to preparing wood for shelter supports and cover, or for burning.  The choil is perfect for use with a ferro rod.

The plan was to dig a trench in the snow for each tire for us to drive through and also to line it with debris and boughs for traction.  Nikko was a real trooper.  I put the Max-Axe shovel together and she grabbed it and started work on the paths for the tires all on her own.   I took the knife and went into the heavily forested areas around the road to gather boughs.  By only taking one or two per tree the tree is not harmed but it does take a bit longer.  By the time Nikko had the trenches made I had enough boughs to fill them.  A few were forced in under the wheels to give us a starting bit of traction and with Nikko sitting on the back to add a little weight to the drive wheels, we drove out like we were on asphalt.  Without her help it would have taken twice as long and used up twice the energy, especially for an old duffer like me.  But it was doable for us because of the tools available onboard the vehicle.  The full-sized shovel worked much faster than a small folding camp shovel designed to dig latrines, and also allowed her to stand up a little better.  The big blade mowed through 2-3-finger thick boughs like butter, so my effort was reduced far below what it would have taken with a small, light knife.

Through it all, I kept track of the time and, more importantly, the estimated time before the sun went below the trees and mountains to the west.  In case we could not extricate the car well before then and had to face the likelihood of spending a night in place likely to get very cold, then we would have needed time to prepare for that while we could still see easily.  Fortunately, the car and my survival pack, also was equipped with gear to make that unpleasant situation at least tolerable and, more importantly, survivable.  We had available extra blankets, and even two sleeping bags in the car so survival was really never in question.  comfort is another issue but it always is in an emergency situation.

Unfortunately we did not document the situation.  We were so focused on extricating ourselves before it got dark, all of our effort went into that.  We had a vehicle filled with photo and video gear but none of it was used during our vehicle recovery efforts.  Sorry…  I needed my friend Don Bartletti along to document it all.  He’d have done a far better job of it than I would anyway.

The point of all this is to show that even on the simplest of photo treks into the most beautiful of places, things can conspire, especially mistakes such as I made, to turn things serious and potentially dangerous very quickly and unexpectedly.  If I’m riding with someone else and I have no reason to assume they are prepared for such emergencies than I also have a small tactical bag of personal survival gear I toss in with my photo equipment.  If I know someone will be riding with me then I feel responsible for them and try to have enough equipment for both, but if I’m going with someone else, I want to make sure that if disaster strikes I can at least take care of myself.

Check out the photos above for what I take.  That may not be the best collection of gear for you but you need to have what YOU need, and, as importantly, what YOU know how to use.  The ultimate survival tool is useless if the owner does not know how to use it.  There are still plenty of places even in Nation Park or Forest areas where disaster can strike and you cannot count on rescue unless someone knows that you likely are needing it and where to look.  And even then you might be required to survive on your own for 3-5 days.  Can you do it?

By the way, the Spring 2020 Schedule is out for City College.  If you would like to take my Landscape Class, (Photo 245, CRN 24979) where we will be covering this type of thing in addition to the obvious photo material.  My co-teacher, Melinda Holden, is still listed as the instructor, but that is the right class.  So do sign up quickly so they don’t, as they have done in the past, cancel it before it even starts because admin does not have faith there will be enough students.  The days of waiting to crash a class are over.  For details check the course page by clicking on the link in the banner at the top of this page.

And for those of you who have heard me tell tales of my growing up on the farm/ranch under the guidance of my Indian uncle, I have completed a book about him that fleshes out many of those stories and may help explain a little about me and also why I still think he was the best man I even knew.  Scroll down the sidebar on the right side of the page and you will see the link to the printer where you can order a copy of that book and/or the others on the future of photography and the issue of dealing with school and mass shooters.

As always, if you have comments or topics you would like me to address, let me know.

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Dealing with Nature –  Part 5:  But What if You Couldn’t Get Out?

I wondered if I would pique your interest with any of this.  Most photographers I have met here in SoCal give this almost no thought.  To the contrary, those I knew back in the Rockies thought about it all the time and were generally prepared mentally and equipmentally to deal with almost anything.  Perhaps that is because in that country, from Montana down to New Mexico, there exist far more places where the hope of rescue is slim if no one knows to come looking, and the places where adventures can be seriously life-threatening are far more common.

But that does not mean that such dangers do not exist here as well; they are just more isolated.  The serious landscape photographers, in search of new and exciting images, are precisely the ones to often find themselves in such places, and, unfortunately, in such trouble because they had no expectation of it beyond a pleasant hike in the beautiful country and the acquisition of some stunning images.

Here, too many weekend pathfinders think of the mountains and deserts as if they were just on a Disneyland adventure ride where it is exciting and thrilling in a vicarious sort of way, but where the apparent dangers are not real.  Yet, just this past week on the news, was a couple who were rescued barely in time (and by blind luck) and another instance involving a lone hiker who whose body was found too late.  Not one of them thought it would ever happen to them.  But it did.  Let me assure you, the dangers can be real even here in la-la land.

Big Pine Creek for blog

Taken along Big Pine Creek on the trail back to the site of the Palisades Glacier.  It was on the road to this trail my student below got stuck.  Further down this trail is a gorgeous glacial cirque but where the footing can be treacherous and requires constant attention.  On one workshop a student looking for a shot stepped off the trail and slipped down toward the creek, fortunately with only cuts and scrapes.  But it could have been far worse; had he made it all the way to the Glacier and THEN had he had a broken bone or seriously twisted ankle, and had he not had the help of other students to get out, the situation could have turned dire pretty quickly.  Even sending a person out for help would mean likely at least spending a night.

On a workshop into the eastern Sierras I had a participant with a flashy new 4WD leave the group on his own, with one other person, to go try out some of the roads into the mountains where he promptly discovered, to his surprise and in contradiction to the salesman’s assurances, that his spiffy 4-wheeler was not a tank.  Fortunately, they were not a long walk from the main road so help was relatively close and it was still early in the day.  But the road they were on could have taken them far into the backcountry where getting stuck could have turned very, very serious.  They had not bothered to tell anyone else what they intended or where they were headed or when they expected to be back.  Trust me, the next day we had a true “come to Jesus” meeting where the rules I thought I had spelled out earlier, were reinforced a bit more clearly and graphically.

Never forget this: when your vehicle will take you further into the wilds than you can walk out in a day (assuming you know where to go) you have just put yourself and any companions in potential trouble.  If it goes bad, it is on you.

So, after reading the little adventure of the previous post, some readers asked me what I would have done if Nikko and I had not been able to extricate the vehicle, or if the incoming storm arrived early or the vehicle was damaged and, for whatever reasons, the result was that we were really stuck there?  So let’s think about that.

Once it was obvious that we were not going to move the vehicle by ourselves, then the situation changes abruptly.  The next steps depend on the answer to the question as to whether we can expect anyone to come looking for us (or stumble upon us) in the relatively near future.  When you are off truly exploring new (to you) roads or trails, it is unlikely you would have left precise itinerary since you are making this up as you go along.  When truly exploring to areas, my Rocky Mountain photo friends are always prepared to have to bivouac in place.  Are you?

Nevertheless, a general idea of your working area and a time of expected return along with a description of the vehicle would be enough to get a rescue mounted the next day.  If that were the case, then we could reasonably expect rescue within a couple of days, especially, if we helped the rescuers to find us.   However, if that rescue effort is at least a day away,  don’t waste time or energy right now with trying to signal anyone.  You’ll need every scarp of energy you have to make it through this first night.

If no one knew where we were going or when we expected to return, then we might not be missed until it was too late for us and exposure or dehydration killed us.  It might be weeks before anyone else tried that road and if the weather turned bad, our survival would be in serious question if we had no way to extend our survival or get to help.

For sake of this entry, let’s assume for now that you have all gotten the message about leaving word of your plans and then sticking to them, and rescue can be expected in 2-3 days.  I have noted before and it is worth repeating, your car will be much easier to spot than you will, so staying with the car is almost always the best thing to do.  It provides a waterproof shelter and windbreak.  And if your engine still runs, it can, with proper rationing, provide enough heat to keep you from freezing (assuming you have proper clothing or blankets) for several days.  Unless you are intimately familiar with the local terrain and environment, trying to strike out across country can be suicidal.

California mountains near big bear for blog

Taken in the Big Bear area with a 500mm lens.  In the center distance is a ledge road winding into the mountains.  If a vehicle broke down there, the inhabitants would have to hike from there to the main road where this shot is from (a lot closer than where the ledge road forked off from its primary forest service road.  That would likely take more than a day and anyone doing that would have to be prepared for it. 

In our case we were on a road that branched from another road that led to a town.  If we absolutely had to leave the car, the trail would have been easy to follow though it would have probably taken a couple of days if the snow was getting deeper.  But trekking through the snow at night is less than brilliant, so we’d have needed to at least spend that first night at the car.  The first thing is to lay out and take stock of your resources; i.e. what do you have available from your survival/emergency gear, recovery gear, and even your photo gear, that you can bring into play to serve your survival needs?

Remember the triage of needs:  (1) maintaining body temp, (2) staying hydrated, (3) if you expect the arduous hike out such as what would be necessitated by the terrain in the above shot, then maintaining your energy reserves becomes important, and (4) making yourselves easy to find for any rescuers if you expect them to be looking.

As an aside, although I said where we were there was no cell phone coverage, it might have been worth the effort to hike to some higher ground and see if you could at least get a text message out since you need far less signal strength for a text than for a voice transmission.  If that worked, then after getting word out and an acknowledgement of your message, you’d be better backtracking to the car and wait for help. The better you were able to pinpoint your location in the message, or at the site of your shelter, the sooner that help will arrive.  Now you only need to stay alive and help them find you.

OK, back to the situation at hand.  Assuming your vehicle is not totaled, burned up, or at the bottom of a steep cliff, it will be the best spot for at least this first night.  So to get you through the night, miserable but alive, you will need to maintain core body temperature and stay hydrated.  Question 1: will the car start even if it cannot be moved?  If so, and if you have plenty of gas, you can ration that fuel with short, 10 minute periods of running the heater in the car.  Make sure the exhaust pipe is clear so that CO (Carbon Monoxide) does not enter or build up in the cab, which could be fatal for you.

Do you have plenty of water on board?  If so then you are all set to spend a very uncomfortable — but very survivable — first night.   But if any of those conditions (a car you can shelter in, enough fuel for running the heater, and several days of water) is not true, then you will need to take some affirmative action to solve it.  So question # 2 is, what time is it, or, more importantly, how long will it be until sundown, which will tell you how long you have to prepare for the night.  If the sun is still high you have plenty of time, but if it is low in the sky time is limited so it is more serious.  Stumbling around in the dark when you are already upset by the situation, is dangerous.  So how much time do you have?  Your hand can tell you.

Hold your hand at arms length away from you toward the sun, turn your palm inward, fingers together, and note how many finger-widths the sun is from the point where it will fall behind the terrain or trees.  Each finger width will give you approximately 15 minutes of sunlight to use. Put on a good hat or cap and gloves since you lose a huge proportion of body heat out through your head and exposed extremities.  As the sun goes down conserving body heat (and replacing it) becomes a life and death issue.

If the car cannot help provide warmth then you will need to start a fire.  That fire will also help if you need water for hydration but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Remember for a fire you will need tinder (the fine easy to start material that will then ignite…) some kindling (small finger sized DRY twigs or other flammables) which will then ignite the real fuel (arm thickness dry wood.)  Remember a few paragraphs above I asked what time it was, well that is now critical because you will need to gather the materials for your fire while you can still clearly see.  It is easier to STAY warm than to let yourself get chilled and try to re-warm your body, so time is now an important element in your actions.

So while there is still enough light for you to see, gather enough DRY material to get the fire going and to last through the night, roughly a pile of fuel logs about three feet wide by three feet tall and kindling equal to a couple of the logs.  Now, does your kit contain fire starting tinder material?  If not, you will need to create a tinder bundle from dry grasses, leaves, fine wood shavings, and resin filled “fat wood” you can find, or any paper you may have in the vehicle.  Are you beginning to see that movies and TV may have lied to you about how easy it is to do this unless you are well equipped and well-practiced at it?

But there is more to consider.  Do you have an ignition source to start the tinder going?  A match or lighter?  Even the cigarette lighter can work.  Sparks from your battery can do the job.  Or, if you have it, a ferrocerium rod and anything with a good sharp edge such as your knife or even broken glass or screwdriver blade it will make the process easier — not as good as a lighter or match but still fairly easy..  Let’s dispel another myth right now.  Unless you have a propane torch handy, starting a fire requires some tools and materials.  Even primitive tribes carried with them – and often held sacred – the materials to start a fire.  Perfect sticks for the “spindle” part of a bow or hand drill were prized and when found, gathered and kept safe.  Mountain men carried their flint and steel and char cloth with them.  NONE of them simply sat down to a pile of wood and magically started a fire with nothing to ignite it that was most likely not brought with them.  Just remember, none of those implements were designed to set a log on fire; they were designed only to set the tinder or tinder-bundle on fire.

While we’re in the myth-busting mode, let’s deal with a myth for photographers having to do with igniting a fire with a magnifying glass made from a photographic lens.  First of all, to use a magnifying glass of any type to ignite a fire needs good strong clear-sky sunlight, the higher in the sky the better.  Does it work?  You bet, and it is quite fast if you have good sun and good combustible material and all the variables are in your favor.  Once the sun starts to drop in the sky, however, it becomes much harder.  By the time the sun is near the horizon, using the lens from a planetary telescope will not get your fire going.  And, while we’re at it, tiny lenses like the one on a Swiss Army Knife, are not going to do it either. That little lens is great for finding that irritating splinter, but not so great as a reliable fire starter.  You will need a lens at least 2” to 3” in diameter to do this easily and even then, it’s easier during mid-day.  (BTW, a large (8×10) Fresnel lens will do it too.) But… when it is overcast or dark, you better have a plan B ready to go.

Now, as to the trope of using a photo lens or lens element:  it’s true that the front objective of a photo lens (The front-most lens element in the lens body) is normally a simplex or duplex lens that could be used.  But… it must be removed from the lens body.  Can you do that and without damaging the lens beyond repair?  Take a good look at the screws holding it together… your automotive or construction screw drivers are not going to work.  Counting on just grabbing your camera lens, with its complex arrangements of elements and groups, and focusing a hot spot to start something on fire, is almost certainly going to leave you with the prospect of a very cold night.

Don’t fight it. Don’t ruin a good lens.  Just toss a good lighter in your kit and be done with it.  As we said before, this is an emergency.  It is not a test of your 1840s-vintage mountain man skills, it is the 21st century, so take advantage of that chronology with your emergency/survival prep.  It is not what the preppers call a SHTF (fecal matter impacting the rotary air moving device) situation where you are on your own for months or even forever.  It is, instead, a relatively short term scenario, so your list of supplies and equipment is not extensive.  But this is not the time for cheap tools and equipment that may break the first time it is under stress. You are going to have enough to deal with without adding the frustration of failure after failure to get a fire going.  Since, even if it was the 1840s, you would have brought fire making supplies in your “possibles” bag, welcome yourself to modern times and carry a lighter or some “strike anywhere” matches along with the kindling and fuel gathering gear.

(If you’d like a little tutorial on how to do that, let me know.)

Once you have an ember glowing and smoking, gently envelope it in the tinder being careful not to smother it, blow softly on it until you get a flame, then place it under the first layer of kindling and then add kindling as needed to get a sustainable flame then add fuel, being careful to allow a flow of oxygen and not to allow the kindling or fuel logs to collapse and crush the beginning fire.

Once the fire is started and burning on its own, you can rig a space/emergency blanket from your survival/emergency kit to help reflect heat into the car like an oven. And now it is time to think about hydration.  And let’s dispel another myth right now.  Do not think that eating snow is the obvious and simple solution.  In fact, eating snow can speed up your demise.  Here’s why.  First, typical snow is about 10% water and 90% air.  That means you would have to eat a lot of snow to properly hydrate yourself even if you are not burning energy with other activities.

But it gets worse; eating snow is also an energy loser.  Your body has to burn energy in order to warm itself after the injection of cold snow.  It may already be struggling with the temperature issue and putting cold stuff inside will accelerate your energy drain.  Plus, it will accelerate your mental and motor functions losses as your body takes the warming blood from all extremities – including your brain – to keep the heart and lungs functioning.

Snow can be a source of water, even if an inefficient one, but you need to melt it first and drink it already warmed if possible and, better yet, with some bouillon cubes for at least a little protein.  That is why my pack (shown in part 4) contained the steel canteen cup, and why making a fire is essential even for hydration when snow is readily available, as counter intuitive as that may be.  And be further warned, old snow will be filled with debris and pathogens as harmful to you as drinking from a contaminated stream. Of course, if it is summer, you don’t even have that option available.  So, again, don’t fight it or try to be a hero, bring water with you.

When the short term survival issues (core body temperature and hydration) are dealt with, now you could think about food; not because you are likely to starve but because food is a major morale booster.  Being hungry is not pleasant under the best of situations; in an emergency if it chips away at your morale and dedication to survival, it can indirectly be deadly.  Protein for energy, carbs to help keep you warm, all contribute to getting you through this.  Forget hunting and trapping and fishing for a one or two day situation and just put protein or granola bars in your car sufficient for 2-3 days (6-9 bars per person) and if you have a way to heat water, some bouillon cubes..

So you made it through the night, certainly miserable, a little cold to be sure, but you woke up and discovered somewhat surprisingly, that you were alive and had made it.  Now with a whole day, there are some critical decisions to make.  So we’ll tackle those in the next post.


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This and that… Upcoming stuff and Announcements

The classes are posted at San Diego City College for Spring 2020 semester and it does look like the Landscape class will run – if – if enough people sign up for it.  This will be one of the most extensive classes on the genre to be found anywhere.  Two instructors cover everything from the traditional foundations of the genre to the modern techniques and equipment; from the business angle of it to even the issue of surviving emergencies out in the field – this class will have it all.

For details click on the link in the banner above and sign up as soon as possible.

And for another not-so-subtle note from the shameless commercialization department… Steve Burns and I are putting together a workshop for Spring to be held in Santa Cruz dealing with using the Zone System concepts to take complete control of your digital shooting.  It will combine lecture and hands-on field work and in-lab editing instruction – a little of everything.  As soon as details are available, I’ll let you know.

And, one last announcement but one important to me on a personal basis.  I’ve just finished a book that made its way to my “bucket list”  for the last year or so but I never seemed to have time to start.  I’ve never considered myself a writer, but I did the “Future of Photography” book in 2017, the book on School Shooters in 2018, and now while it is still barely 2019, have done another one.  Go figure… But this one is not about photography or anything related to it.

Those first two books did not start out to be books at all.  The first was conceived as a treatise required for a sabbatical leave, and the second started as a blog entry based on some questions from students.  Both somehow got way out of control (imagine that) and ended up as book-length works.  I never saw them as commercial in nature but, with no discernible pattern, sales have been OK.  I’m not likely to retire to some exotic spot on them but they’ve at least more than paid for the efforts.  And hopefully the one on school shooters has had an impact on thinking about the subject and how to try to minimize or stop it.

But this latest piece was seen as a book from the first, and a very personal one at that.  Those readers that actually know me and have spent any time with me have probably been subjected to stories of the uncle that raised me and anecdotes from the time I spent on his farm and his attempts to teach me what he saw as the important old ways of his people (he was half Cherokee) and the values he felt were important.  A year ago, on a lark, I tried to look up his grave site (which I have actually been to) and found the cemetery has no record of it.  A look at Google Earth revealed that the area of the farm and the great woods that surrounded it are now housing tracts and part of greater Kansas City, a place that used to be “the big city” we would occasionally venture into.

That was so disorienting to me, it was like thinking all those memories were something out of the Matrix-like concept of imposed hallucination, so I even contacted old friends from back then to verify it had really happened. I was relieved to learn I had not completely fantasized a large portion of my life, but now was really distressed to learn that most of the signs of that life and those people were simply erased.  It was a very strange feeling.

But that exercise spurred me to want to finally write down at least enough to leave somewhere, even if only in a book nobody ever read, a memorial and tribute to the person I believe was the best man I ever knew; a man whose guidance changed my path from one of likely self destruction, to one following, with some success, my art and photography.  I think there are lessons in it for a lot of us.  If I had kids of my own it is the teaching I received from him and his modelling as a good man that I would want to pass on.  The book’s title is simply “Unk” which is what I called him.  Maybe I can do some of that teaching through this little homage to him.

The writing took me in some directions I had not planned, but in the end,  I think and hope it allows people to know something about the only real father figure I had, and maybe, in the process, reveal something about me.  Anyway, I just finished it and it is now available to order directly from Lulu Press.

I’d be honored to introduce him to you.  Here is the URL to my spotlight page where all of this recent series of books is listed:  Given a few days to process, it will be available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble but it will still likely be a little cheaper direct from the printer/publisher.

OK, that concludes the market section for this post so I’ll get back to things photographic with the next post as soon as I can.

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Dealing With Nature – Part 3: Getting Equipped for an Adventure

OK, so far in this series we’ve talked about the allure of landscape photography and how mastery of it can inform virtually every other genre you might work in; but there are issues and dangers you need to consider before you just start out for the tall and the uncut (part 1).  And we’ve talked about getting prepared for a landscape trek both for yourself and your vehicle (we did NOT talk about photo prep in this series, that’s for elsewhere) in order to try to avoid emergency or even survival situations (part 2).

But now its time to talk about those times when even the best preparation has failed and you’ve been blindsided by a natural or man-created event and find yourself in the middle of a major emergency where you are not close to civilization and cannot extricate yourself and must spend at least a night in the middle of nowhere.  What are the tools and skills needed to survive such situations?  If you are interested we can add another segment or two on how to use those tools in an emergency situation.

But first, a (hopefully) calming introduction.  Remember, and this is important, we are NOT addressing skills needed to live off grid in a post apocalyptic world where the veneer of civilization itself has been pealed away with no grid remaining to even worry about for the rest of your life… or at least a very long time.  Barring that sort of nightmare scenario or prolonged natural catastrophe, most emergencies for nature photographers happen within a day’s hike to a road or other easy means of exit or help, and in the vast number of cases, happen when the photographer simply intended to hike out a few hundred yard or less and then things went seriously south in an instant.  For the most part, if – IF – you followed my instructions for leaving a plan with someone not going, and then sticking to it, rescue happens  in an average of three days (and usually less) and only rarely does the emergency actually last a full week.

It’s true that hyperbolic stories now and then hit the press about people surviving for weeks or months and those gather lots of coverage on all media fronts.  But those are extremely rare and usually are prolonged due primarily to human error or negligence, not the nature of the emergency itself.  For the typical nature photographer off on a typical photo trek, and other than a true survival hike or week long but planned-out journey, usually following established trails where you are carrying everything needed for that planned outing, your serious planning needs only to consider having an accident or losing your way and having to survive up to three days.  That is a VERY different issue than what to do in case of a civilization collapse or, something really likely like, oh, say, a zombie apocalypse.

If you recall the chart on what kills people at what rate, the things you will need to be concerned about for a 2-4 day sojourn are primarily maintaining core body temp and then water… in that order.

No, I didn’t forget about food.  For one thing you are not likely to starve to death in three days or even a week.  Oh, make no mistake, you’ll be REALLY uncomfortable and very hungry, but your survival will be dependent on other things than food.  And that means having to hunt or trap or fish for sustenance will not be a requirement.  And that is a good thing that already gives you a leg up.

Most survival kits contain fishing line and hooks but, movies and TV shows aside, throwing a line with a hook attached into the water, except perhaps during a salmon run, is likely to leave you frustrated, and worse, frustrated and REALLY hungry thinking about the fish you failed to catch.  Building a fish trap (assuming there was a good place for one) or hunting for small game is equally likely to fail and trapping is much harder than it is made to look in those great demos by some heir apparent to Davy Crockett.  And if you succeed in getting a fish or squirrel or rabbit, do you know how to clean it and prepare it for eating?  Can you recognize the signs of diseases on the meat of game, especially in rabbits so you would know what NOT to eat?  My advice is to bring plenty of energy bars and forget hunting or fishing for food.

While it is possible to live for a few days without water if you expend ZERO energy, in reality after a few hours, only 6-10 hours of any effort, you will start to dehydrate and feel the effects in an increasing failure to function properly. Dying from dehydration is really ugly.  I always have extra water in the vehicle and also have a water filter in the emergency kit.  But because here in southern California, and especially in the desert areas, water can be hard to find, the safest, easiest thing to do is simply carry extra with you and when you take off away from the vehicle, have a canteen with you.

To maintain body temp, which is the thing that will kill you the fastest, you will need some form of shelter from either the brutal rays of the sun or from cold and wetness.  If you are near your car and it is not wrecked or otherwise dangerous to be in or around, then it is the best existing shelter you can have because it is also far more easily spotted from the air by rescue personnel unless you’ve driven it off into heavy bush or into a deep lake or river.  If your car is simply stuck or stranded, stay with it.  If you have brought the suggested supplies (and you can carry enough in your car to several people for several days) you are ahead of the game and your main worry will be terminal boredom waiting for help.

But if your vehicle is not available, your primary needs for a 3-5 day stay, in terms of real survival, and assuming no medical emergencies mandating rescue or movement, will still be primarily shelter and maintaining body temperature. (We’ll talk about medical emergencies needing extraction later…) You face an immediate decision that is critical, i.e. Should you stay where you are or should you try to find your way out?

Many of us (mostly men I’m embarrassed to admit) assume we have some built in GPS system that will allow us to intuit our way across terra icognito to safety.   Listen carefully… YOU DO NOT.  To navigate in an environment that is not intimately familiar to you, requires two pieces of hard data: (1) where are you more or less exactly, and (2) where, precisely,  is the target destination and safety?  Study after study has shown that NO ONE can walk in a straight line for very long.  So what? Well… consider this:

If you are a mile away from your destination and know what is the precise bearing to get there, an error in your travel of one minute of angle (a 60th of a degree), equal to only one inch off in 100 yards, will have you missing your target by about 175 yards, nearly two football fields.  Not a problem if you are heading for a town, but if you are trying to get to a known spring, or your vehicle, or a cache, or a camp, especially in dense woods, you will walk by it and never understand how close you were as you march on to your death.

If you are not a very experienced outdoors person, highly skilled in land navigation, AND know those two basic bits of data, AND have a compass or GPS, you are almost certainly better off to find a close clearing or meadow where you can make yourself very visible to rescue aircraft and patrols.

Does your pack contain any high visibility sheets you can stake out to make your position more visible?  If not, add it now.  Old timers talk of building signal fires and would tell you that three fires belching smoke, located in a row, is a universally recognized symbol of distress.  And that is true.  But…  With the increase in droughts and extremely dry conditions, building large signal fires creates a huge danger of starting a wildfire and leaving nothing but your charred remains for later searchers to find, not to mention incredible danger to anything in the area from an out of control wildfire that YOU started.  So don’t do it.  There are better ways to attract attention.  One of the most devastating wild fires in this area was started by a lost hunter.

Most packets of high-visibility sheets also contains diagrams of how to arrange them for signaling your situation.  A large “V” means to pick you up there.  A large “X” means a medical emergency.

If the rescuers see you individually from the air, then you only need to know 2-3 of the body/hand rescue signals.  Once you know you’ve been spotted and the aircraft is circling to watch you or hovering, if you need rescue and to be picked up hold both arms straight up and steady.  If you need medical help but the situation is not life threatening, hold both arms straight out from your body parallel to the ground.  If you have a life-threatening medical emergency, as the pilot watches, lay down on your back, fully prone on the ground with arms overhead.

There is a whole language of body and hand signals for more specific communications, but when you are stuck in place, unable to proceed and need rescue, those are the ones you will need.  A normal plane will rock its wings to indicate it has understood you before it goes for help.  A helicopter will search to see if there is a close place to land and if not will circle then go for help.  Take a deep breath, it is almost over.

If it is dark enough to where your flashlight can be seen – you do have a flashlight with you??? – then an SOS will get the attention of anyone who can see it.  Three short flashes, three longer flashes, and three more short flashes, is the international “SOS” or “MayDay” signal.  If the sun is out, a signal mirror can send the same message for miles and miles if you have line of sight to an aircraft or where there is some sign of human activity.  Even the light from a cell phone, especially the flashlight function, can also be seen for miles.  Even if you do not have any signal for a call or text, the flashlight function will work. If anyone sees it, even a commercial aircraft, they will call it in.

There is some controversy that an SOS is meant for dire, life threatening emergencies only; but my feeling is that if your life is on the line, I’d worry about explaining and apologizing later after help arrived and you are safe.  If the SOS signal is received, the receiver would normally respond with an “R” (short, long, short) set of flashes, or two quick “Rs” together indicating they received your message.  But while almost anyone will recognize the emergency signal, not all that many people know enough Morse code and radio protocol to return the “R” signal. If they signal ANYthing back, it means they got your message.   If received by an airplane there may be no way to let you know they got the message other than, in the day time, when they know you can see them, rocking their wings.

So, OK, you’ve found a place to stop and stay, and you know it probably won’t be until the next day that search efforts get underway after your backup at home alerts the cavalry you did not return as scheduled.  Now it is time to think seriously about the upcoming evening.  Of course, you checked the weather forecast ahead of the trek and know whether it will be mild or cold once the sun goes down and dressed accordingly.  If rain is forecast then some form of shelter will be called for.  And for many people, rain or not, a shelter just feels less open to the scary dark and the real or imagined creatures that live there. A tarp would be wonderful but lacking that (they are heavy) a lean-to or A-Frame with sides made from tightly shingled boughs, can shed all but the most severe rain storms.

While fire may or may not be really necessary for heat,  a small containable campfire can do wonders for your morale; so it will be well worth your while to learn how to build one in such a way as to eliminate the likelihood of it getting out of control and setting the forest, and maybe you, on fire.  And if you are leading a small group here, your ability to get a campfire going will be almost magical in its ability to instill calm and confidence in you and reduce panic that can get someone killed.

Many folks, especially men, I hate to admit once again, seem to feel that buried in male DNA is the code to fire starting.  We expect ourselves, and are often expected by others, to simply kneel down, rub a couple of sticks together and poof, a beautiful campfire, ready for weenies or marshmallows, springs into existence.  Alas, there is not a shred of truth in that.

Making fire is a skill that must be learned and, once learned, needs to be practiced in a stress-free environment, so that when the adrenaline is running like Niagara and fine motor skills just left for a better party, and you are frightened, cold, and frustrated at the hand you have just been dealt by nature or your own actions, you can still start one easily.  When you know how, have the tools, and have practiced it, it actually IS easy although somewhat tedious.  But when you don’t know how, or think watching a few YouTube videos are all that is needed, you are going to be in for an ego shattering, incredibly frustrating, and perhaps very chilly evening.

Fire requires several things.  It requires fuel that will burn with a plasma flame such as most wood, it requires oxygen, and it requires ignition from some source.  The fuel itself is broken into three parts.  Once it is going well, fuel logs are fine.  Those are the larger, thicker chunks of wood, about arm or wrist thickness, that one normally associates with a wood fire.  But wood of that size does not ignite easily unless your tool kit contains gas and a portable blow torch.  Those are not items one normally carries in their pockets or emergency kits.  Even a storm-proof match or butane lighter is not going to get a log burning for your fire.  Fortunately there are other ways.  Before the fuel wood can be ignited, you need to start smaller.  Those intermediate steps are first the “tinder” and then the  “kindling.”

Tinder is fine, easily ignitable material, often dry grasses, pine needles, shredded bark, or man-made tinder such as fire cord, or even dryer lint.  Those are easy to ignite with the normal things such as matches and lighters.  But they also ignite with the more old-time approaches such as flint and steel (or the modern counterpart, a ferrocerium rod), a good magnifying glass, or even, if you are very skilled at it, a bow drill.  I can show you how to use the old-time approaches; but c’mon, get real.  Most of you are not interested in learning that stuff and in an emergency where you completely are blindsided by the need to make fire, the good news is that you are not going to have to make fires long after modern igniters run out.  You’ve only got to make one or, at the most, 5-6 fires.  So make it easy on yourself.  Toss in couple books of matches or a couple of butane lighters and relax.  For short term emergencies, where you will have enough emotional distraction to last a lifetime, we can accept that this is the 21st century not the 18th or 19th century.  This is not a test of your long term survivor skills, it is a short term life or death issue but the operative term is “short term.”

That means all you have to do is be able to get the tinder and kindling ready and perhaps split down some of the larger fuel woods for your fire, then “lay” a fire that allows the smaller tinder to ignite kindling and then fuel wood.  I know, I’ve met some… there are woodsy elitist who would have you believe there is only one proper way to lay a fire – most common are the “teepee” and “log cabin” lays.  But in an emergency, the proper lay is one that works.  Again we can cover this in detail if you want.

Meantime, let’s start with tinder since that is where you’ll have to start with your fire.  And, once again, you can either return to the days of ol’ Dan’l Boone, learn bush lore and what kinds of trees produce “fat” wood (resin infused wood), and how to properly scrape up a pile of it, crush wild grasses and twigs, etc., make “feather sticks” and char cloth (all of which is fascinating and worthwhile knowledge for any photographer spending time in the bush), or…  in the short term, you can take advantage of our modern world.

It turns out that modern conveniences produce excellent tinder as a by-product that ignites with far more consistency than grass (which has to be bone dry to work).  Your clothes dryer produces very efficient tinder in the form of “dryer lint,” especially when it is from cottons and wools (polyester lint is not very good).  The cotton that is used to stopper many supplement bottles is also very good tinder.  Instead of throwing it out, bag it and save it. You can make it into an incredible fire starter by combining it with some paraffin, bee’s wax, and/or magnesium shavings (very cheap on ebay). Put it in a baggie, toss it in your emergency pack and it will last essentially forever  When you are laying out the materials for your fire, in the tinder pile you can also include low hanging dead/dried twigs, shavings and chips from any wood chopping or sawing you had to do.  Then start collecting the kindling.

Kindling is small, up-to finger sized twigs and small branches (all DRY) or strips left over from splitting down larger logs into wrist and arm sized fuel logs.  The tinder will ignite the kindling and that will produce a large enough and long-lasting enough flame to ignite the actual fuel.

The reason things like feather sticks and shavings work is that thin, finer edges catch on fire far easier than the flat or rounded sides of larger pieces.  Once lit then they will continue to burn into the larger sides and edges.   Collect enough kindling to be equal in volume to one or two fuel logs.  Speaking of which, now it is time to collect the real fuel.

This fire starter tinder and even most kindling can be collected with your bare hands although it can be easier and a knife would be required for making a feather stick or shavings.  But to collect fuel wood, you will find it easier with some tools.  Yes, if you can find enough arm and wrist sized downed but dried wood branches, you can break it into campfire lengths by breaking them over a rock or against a tree.  But while often that might get you going, before long – and certainly a day later, you will run out of them and either have to forage wider and wider to find them (and remember you are lost because you were not all that good at navigating in the woods)  or you are going to need to be able to split and break down larger chunks of wood into reasonable pieces for your fire.  So, what tools will you need to have available?

To identify the tools we might need, let’s first identify the work you will need those tools to do.  You will need to cut down larger dead limbs and or use fallen dead trees and limbs that need to be “bucked” into firewood length pieces, some of which must then be split into firewood.  You might also need to be able to create wood shavings, and be able to shape some pieces into splitting wedges.

In an ideal world you would have several tools available: a good saw, an axe or at least a good sized hatchet or tomahawk, a larger knife for chopping and making intermediate tools, and a smaller knife for more precision cutting and slicing, and perhaps a pack mule to carry it.  Having all of that would make fast work of your fire-making chores.  But let’s face it, almost no photographer, and most especially one already whimpering about the weight of a DSLR, is likely to wander off for a shot with all that gear readily available in a pack or on their belt.

The fully loaded emergency pack that lives in my car when on the road includes all of that plus first aid and medical stuff, shelter pieces, fire making tools and supplies, water filter, canteen, lashing and rope, navigation equipment, it even has toilet paper on board… but it weighs in at about 40 pounds.  It really is designed to live in the vehicle and I almost never carry it when I think I’m just going down the trail over that little rise where I expect the wily image to be waiting.

So what do I carry on those short hikes where I only expect to find a shot, take it, and hike back to the vehicle in, at most, an hour or so?  I strap on a belt (often a surplus military web belt or law enforcement utility belt whose width helps spread the load) with a large knife, a Swiss Army knife in its own sheath, a small pouch with fire making stuff, simple first aid supplies, a canteen of water, and some lashing usually in the form of paracord.  And if, for some reason I had to pare that down to a one or two items, I would take the big knife and stuff some matches or a ferro rod in my shirt pocket.  If you wish, in a later post I can show how to use that stuff.

A critical warning however is that all the best survival gear you can find on the web will not save your life if you do not know how to use it.  Just like your camera, it is just a collection of tools waiting for the skills and knowledge to arrive to put it to good use.

But there is one potential issue we have not yet considered.  What if you, or someone in your party, are injured?  I don’t mean a minor cut or scrape that can be temporarily dealt with using a Bandaid® and maybe some antiseptic ointment, I mean something serious, like a broken bone and/or serious blunt force trauma from a fall or, worse, sharp force trauma from falling into a sharp broken tree branch?  Tripping over hidden roots or rocks, or making a misstep on a shelf or ledge trail, can, in an instant, turn a pleasant hike into a serious, life or death matter.  There are too many really easy ways to hurt yourself in the bush to ignore this possibility.

I once had a student walking through the timber, intently focused on a shot they thought they saw through the trees to the side, walk straight into a broken branch sticking our and peeled back a major flap of skin on their forehead.  It was not life-threatening, but it bled ferociously, looked horrible, and needed attention immediately to help keep it from getting infected.

What if you trip and break a leg or an arm?  With that injury and the agonizing pain, can you get back to your vehicle or somewhere where medical help is available? What if you reached over a rock to pull yourself up and got snake bit?  If by some miracle you had cell phone coverage, could you tell rescuers precisely where to find you?

I don’t want to scare you or make you afraid to go into the bush for photographs.  But the more you are aware of things that can negatively effect your trek, and the better prepared you are for them, the more enjoyable your photo trek will be and the more you’ll want to come back. And the more you return, the more beautiful photos you take, the more viewers will come to appreciate and want to take care of nature.  So add a comment if you’d like more details…

BTW, it looks like the Photo 245 Landscape Photography course will be allowed to run this Spring.  It is in the course schedule online but I do not know if you can yet register for it.  It lists my team teacher, Professor Melinda Holden as the instructor but that is the right course so if you are interested, sign up as soon as you can so it will not be cancelled.  I’ll have more details later.

Plus Steve Burns (PhotoShop guru extraordinaire), and I will be doing a workshop in Spring along the central coast dealing with using the concepts of the Zone System applied to the digital world to give you total control of your captured images and to better prepare them for advanced editing.

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Dealing With Nature – Part 2: Staying Safe

We’ve all seen those glorious landscape photos on cards, in books, as screen savers, in galleries and museums.  And for the fine-art photographer, landscape and nature photographs are the most common of the fine art subjects.  We all want to take images that would make Ansel Adams jealous, and yet, we rarely venture out off the highway turn-out to find those incredible shots.  Why?


Fear is the biggest obstacle for many photographers when contemplating heading out into nature to photograph her on her own terms.  Of all the emotions, fear is the worst.  It is the most debilitating, the most paralyzing, the most likely to end up in hatred.  We don’t want you to end up hating nature but being comfortable in it, and that means you need to learn the skills to let you feel unthreatened and, as my uncle use to say, “Walk in balance and harmony” with nature.

But first let’s lay a bit of foundation for it all.  I talked in the last post about how nature will talk to you.  I don’t mean it will announce, with a sonorous voice from inside a bush (although I confess if it did it would have my complete and undivided attention…), what you should do; but it will present you with imagery that, metaphorically can bring out emotional responses you can share with your viewers. We are all descendants of dwellers in the bush and there is still a connection there though it has been dulled and shoved aside by modern living and needs.  Consequently, a lot of people, especially those raised in the city, are very uncomfortable heading out into the bush and, to be honest about it, are a little afraid since it is so unfamiliar, and so many stories abound about people running into big trouble once off the beaten path.  And yet… it is in those unfamiliar surroundings that some of the most stunning photographs can be found waiting for you.

It’s important to understand, therefore, that nature will not purposefully harm you.  Now, to be honest, it will blithely let you harm yourself and not get in your way if that is your desire; but it will also not trouble itself to target you for harm.  Indeed, it will not trouble itself caring about you one way or the other, so consequently, unlike humans, it does not lie.  I’ve heard people gush that “I just LOVE nature.”  Get over it.  It does not care.  It does not seek your love because it knows the most common lie among humans concerns love; it only expects you to respect it and learn the rules.  It does not give a hoot if you love it or not, that is meaningless.    But if you respect it and learn those rules, the rewards can be simply awesome for the artist.  If you truly respect it you will come to want to protect and preserve it for your future images hunts and for others as well.  And the more you respect it, the more it will reveal of itself to you, and the more imagery you will have to show for it.  And the more comfortable you will become and want to spend more time in it.  It really is a win-win.

So what are the rules for the photographer venturing off into nature in pursuit of the wily image?  Remember in the last post I said my friend held that an “adventure” was an event that resulted from a failure of planning.  Most of the time, my experience indicates that is true, but there are times when all the planning in the world cannot protect you from being blindsided by an accident.  So, let’s divide our discussion into two major parts.  The first part (this post) will be focused on avoiding that unfortunate adventure via pre-trek planning that will, well over 90% of the time, keep you out of trouble and bring you home safely and without adventure.  The next post(s) will deal with the issues that arise when even that planning fails to shield you from an adventure (or when it really IS an adventure due to bad planning).

Final note before we start.  Reading a few blog posts or books or even watching demos on video will not, repeat, WILL NOT, make you into a viable survivalist or prepper.  Dealing with a true survival type situation where you have to remain in place in the middle of nowhere for several days without the conveniences of civilization and are, worse yet, possibly hurt, IS NOT EASY!  It’s not easy on the emotions and it will demand a lot from you in terms of skills and just determination to make it. This is especially true if there are other folks in your group even less experienced than you.  They will instantly look to you for your skills and knowledge to keep them alive and if they lose confidence in that you will have a full blown panic on your hands which can turn deadly in an instant.  The most I can do here is show you some places to start.  So lets get with it…

Martial artists learn that the best way to deal with an incoming strike is not to be there when it arrives.  For our purposes it means doing whatever we can in advance to reduce or eliminate the chance of something going wrong.  The first item of business is trip planning.  Like a pilot, creating a “flight plan” that is reasonably doable, and then making sure that someone NOT going is aware of it, is critical.  The information should include your destinations, itinerary, and, perhaps most importantly, when you will be returning.  They will need to now within a reasonable “grace period” when they should hear from you that either you are home safe or there has been a change of plans, before they start sending out the cavalry to find and rescue you.  But it will make any survival situation more bearable if you know that before long, someone will be searching for you and have a good general idea where to look.

Do you know your vehicle’s mileage?  Not just on the highway, but when you are off-highway and following a dirt road?  It will likely be much less so do you know when to top off the tank to be safe? (Answer: regardless of where the gauge is, top it off just before you leave the pavement.)

If you have a cell phone and coverage, then try to check in daily with your stay at home backup and give new data if you decide to alter your initial plan.  This alone could save a lot of people major problems every year and all over the country.

If you are not a good map reader, become one.  Learn the basics of navigation and orienteering especially including how to use a good compass and map. This may seem unneeded if you intend to simply do car travel and stay in motels or campgrounds and got yourself one of those fancy GPS thingies.  But if you plan on ANY amount of hiking or exploring, know that most of the survival situations each year start out as simple day or even hourly hikes and then something goes terribly wrong.   You get off trail and get lost; you trip and break a leg, there are any number of ways a simple hike in a National Park or Forest and turn serious and potentially deadly if you are not prepared for every eventuality you can think of.

Do not rely on your clever GPS device which may run out of battery or get broken or lost in the field.  When they work they make navigation incredibly easy, but when they fail to operate, you will be dependent on some more traditional skills.  They are like calculators.  I used to be good at math – until I got my first calculator.  Within a disgustingly short amount of time my ability to do math was severely diminished because I relied on the calculator.  Other electronic devices are the same.  They are wonderful when they work, but don’t let them take away your knowledge and skills of what to do when they are not available.

When walking through nature, slow down, literally, stop and smell the flowers.  Move slow enough to allow yourself to become totally aware of what is all around you: the beauty of it as well as the danger of it.  The glorious outcrop against an azure sky but also the root about to trip you or the low hanging branch about to lay you low.  Learn to see and laugh at the antics of the squirrels but also see the tracks and sign that let know you are not the only predator in the forest.  Having your map and plan in your head so you do not need to be glued to the GPS, will free you to look around and be part of this incredible environment.  Being worried about staying on trail will divert your attention from the often incredible detail all around you just waiting for you — YOU — to see while others go right on by.

And give a copy of your map and planned itinerary to your backup that will be staying at home.  Just as on your copy, it should pin point intended stops and campsites.  If something goes wrong that will give them the ability to better aim the folks coming to your rescue. Then YOU stick to the plan unless you can connect with them to alert them to your changes.

I know, I know… you have no plans for extensive exploration and, at most, intend a few hour, or at most a day trip from the trail head or parking lot hunting for an overlook or unique shot.  So why worry with about all that stuff; surely it is massive overkill… isn’t it?  Well the reason is mathematical.  By FAR AND AWAY, the greatest number of people needing extraction and rescue from the woods and who are in the worst condition when found, are the day hikers.  Why?  Because they are the ones who least expect a problem and therefore tend to be the worst equipped or prepared for emergencies.  Don’t become one of those statistics.

How?  Plan a day hike with the same care you would plan a week long survival hike.  More people are lost and injured wandering away from the official picnic site than whoever attempted serious survival treks into the woods.  Real explorers prepare for everything and rarely get in trouble.  It is the recreationist that uses cheap tools and survival gimmicks, if they have anything at all, and find themselves in trouble.  Ask any rescue service or group if you don’t believe me.

So, with a plan identified and provided to your “back up,” now it is time to make sure your equipment is in good shape.  We all know to charge batteries for our shooting gear, but do you know how to make sure your vehicle is REALLY up for the trip?  Your vehicle is your major transportation but it may also end up being your survival shelter.  If it is not in top condition, take it to your mechanic, tell him or her what you plan, and ask them to make sure the vehicle is mechanically as ready as possible: no leaks, good belts, no electrical drains, good tires and battery, fluids topped off, etc.  If you have an older vehicle, especially, start each day on the trek with a “walk around” check to include tires, fluids, etc.

Now how about you and your party?  We’ll talk about specific skills and techniques in later posts, but first, do you have with you the tools and gear with which to easily apply those skills?  Don’t be misled by movies or TV shows where people get lost or in trouble and have no trouble making a shelter or starting a fire with a couple of sticks, or hunting, fishing, and trapping small game, and whose canteens seem to never run dry like the old westerns where no one ever had to reload.  Hiking out down the mountain side with a broken leg and a tree branch crutch may seem reasonable in a movie… until you have to try it with someone (maybe yourself) with a low pain tolerance and gripped with fear and agony.  I assure you, the reality will be very different… very quickly.

You should never venture into the woods alone unless you are a true and experienced wilderness explorer (and most individuals with those qualifications do not venture off the trail alone either…  And every one in your party should be prepare to take care of the others if something happens.  Don’t designate a single person to carry survival gear.  If THAT is the person who slips on the cliff trail and takes the gear with them you are now ALL in trouble.

No one thinks it will happen to them, and for most of them that is likely to be true.  But not one of the people who gets lost or seriously injured… or die… each year out in the woods thought it would happen to them either.   So what should you really prepare for?  Here is a breakdown of your greatest threats to survival:

  1. You can live for about 3 weeks without food if you seriously conserve energy.
  2. You can live for about 3 days without water if you conserve hydration
  3. You can live for from about 3 minutes to about 30 minutes if your core temperature rises or lowers below normal.

Now put that data into perspective. So what is clear is that in most “normal” survival events (as if any true survival event is normal) the statistics are you will be found (if they know to look for you) within 3-5 days.  Yes there are occurrences that can go on longer but that is the typical duration.  So for most individuals, food is the least of your problems in terms of survival.  However, that figure can be a little misleading.  When you are hungry in such a situation it is easy to let that hunger trigger panic so you will have to keep that from happening just because your stomach thinks your throat has been cut.  A fistful of energy bars you can ration will go a long way toward eliminating this issue.  If your ordeal went a full week, a dozen energy bars will leave you hungry but far from starving.

Then we have the question of water.  In the woods with lots of cover and shadow you can perhaps go for over that 3 day limit if you minimize movement and energy loss.  If you are in the desert where it is hot then that 3 days may be incredibly optimistic.  So make no mistake: water is critically important.  Ideally you would have a gallon per day but unless perspiration is depleting your hydration rapidly, even ½ gallon per day will keep you going.  So make sure your car has plenty of water for you (and for it) plus if you take off on a hike take a canteen or water bottle in your backpack.  Don’t waste it but don’t wait until you are thirsty and dehydrated to take a mouthful of water.  But on the trek “out” from camp, do ration it as best you can without risking dehydration so you’ll have plenty if for some reason you are delayed.  In the next segments we’ll talk about getting water naturally.  But the best bet is always to take it with you.

Aren’t we making a big deal out of nothing here?  You decide for yourself but consider this.  All it takes is a minor slip to seriously injure yourself against a broken tree limb: a trip over a hidden stump to demonstrate that a typical rock is tougher than a typical skull, a hunk of ledge shoulder crumbling under your feet, a braced grip on a wet tree fails, a falling branch, backing unexpectedly into a cholla —  these incidences can be just mildly irritating or potentially deadly.

So do you at least have a good first aid kit with you with first aid cream plus bandages – even band aids???  Do you have some aspirin or acetaminophen to help with pain.  Can you dress a wound if necessary? Can you remove a splinter or cacus spine?  Can you at least splint an arm or leg if necessary?  If you have to spend a night and day in the woods do you have any necessary meds you must take daily with you?

Once you step away from the pavement, all the things civilization allows us to take for granted will fade away and be out of reach.  Are you prepared for at least the little common issues?  Unattended, those common problems can turn serious very, very quickly.

And then we have the part that will kill you fastest: “exposure” which is a rise or lowering of your core temperature.  That means that your number one consideration should be shelter either from the heat or from the cold.  Let’s deal with heat first since here in San Diego we are so close to the desert.

Overview of Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley NP

Overview of the Mesquite Dunes near stovepipe wells, Death Valley NP

HEAT.  Once you have spent any amount of time in the desert, especially in the summer, you will know clearly that “warmer is not always better.”  Excessive heat will deplete your hydration at a very accelerated rate, and as water is lost, lethargy will set in as your muscles fail to work normally until the most critical muscles, your brain and your heart, fail.  As you approach terminal hyperthermia your skin will get pale and clammy, your tongue swells, you will get a brutal headache, and as your body literally dries out, you become less and less coherent, and then you die.

You can only take off so many clothes and then you risk burning your skin and it is worse.  The solution is to reduce the heat; get in or create shade, get in a place with some breeze if possible, stay hydrated if you can.  If you absolutely must travel and can do so safely, rest in the day out of the sun and travel at night.  During the day plan your route and then follow it at night.

By the way, do you have a good broad brimmed hat or at least a modern Keffiyeh or Shemagh style scarf from which you can make a good head covering to protect not only from sun but from blowing dust and sand.  Cowboys used neckerchiefs and bandannas but they were not the little pocket hanky style, they were much larger like… well… lie a shemagh.  (Go ahead and look it up…)

Joshua Trees and Rocks 01

Late afternoon light on Joshua Trees and rock piles in Joshua Tree National Park

But do you know where to head? Do you actually know exactly where you are?  And from that, do you know where your car is or, from your map studies, where the nearest Ranger Station of other help might be?  Can you actually backtrack yourself back to safety?  Did you pay attention to your route, looking behind you frequently to see what THAT view looks like?  Do you know your trail well enough to know if it is faster to go back or keep going or try to cut across country and if that is your best option, can you navigate your way across desert flats to that safe haven?

If you can find water or even moist soil by digging in the eddies of the now dry stream beds and old water flows, remember, it is probably not safe to drink, but it can help cool you down by evaporation. Soak a handkerchief or shirt in it and place it on your head and neck. If all you can get is moist sand, use it in a scarf.    Also keep your wrists cool the same way.

Do you have with you the tools to make whatever you need to survive?  Do you have a way to hack bushes and materials for a shelter, to cut open certain cacti for liquid (and of course a guide to tell you which ones are safe) or dig for water?  Do you have a way to deal with a scrape or wound or snakebite?  Although we’ll go into more detail in later posts let me insert here that cutting desert ironwood or succulents or making digging sticks with your Swiss Army knife as your only tool will leave you incredibly frustrated.

If you are headed into the desert for longer treks (anything more than short hikes from the vehicle – meaning anything that takes you out of shouting distance from the parking lot) read everything you can on desert survival and practice it where you are safe.  Just never forget that in that type of terrain, water is life so make sure you set out with plenty on hand and in reserve.  Better to come home with a few still-full jugs than to have someone find your carcass somewhere with an empty canteen nearby.  And remember that most rescues are for people NOT expecting (and not equipped for) anything more than a few hours hike — if they are prepared for anything at all.

One last quick note, in the winter, even thought the desert is still warm during the day, the temperature can drop suddenly when the sun goes down and the enormous temperature differential will make it seem a LOT colder.  Are you prepared for that too?

tree in ridge 02 for blog

Bristlecone Pine high on a ridge in the White Mountains of California.

COLD.  The heat issue noted above is not normally given much thought since we think “warm is good” and often think it is only cold that will do us in… as indeed it will.  If your core body temperature drops below body normal (98.6° F for most of us) then the brain re-routes blood away from the extremities to protect core organs.  That can happen from more than a drop in the air temperature; it also can come from being wet (evaporative cooling) and wind.  Always – ALWAYS – have a dry change of clothes available.

Hypothermia will set in with unexpected speed and your cognitive abilities will suffer first, then fine motor skills.  Then you’ll start to shiver, a little at first then more energetically then uncontrollably.  And then your brain shuts down, commiting suicide by routing blood to the heart, and as blood to the brain is lost you lose consciousness, and then you die.

If your trek takes you anywhere where the air temperature is at or below the 60° – 70° range (which is well below your body’s core temperature) without proper clothing or shelter and especially if you get wet, you can get and succumb to hypothermia.  Do not play with this or ignore it!

Can you start a fire with what you have carried with you?  That doesn’t mean just making a spark, it means getting fuel, tinder, kindling together, laying a fire that will actually burn but in a way that will not set the forest around you on fire, and which will provide heat to you and your shelter.   We’ll talk in a later post about some easier techniques to learn and practice first around the barbeque before you head out into the bush. But the time to acquire that skill is in your back yard not when your life or the lives of others depends on it.

But what if it is not all that cold?  Fire also has a major impact on morale even where it is really not needed for the heat.  Humans seem to have an atavistic love of fire; it calms them and makes them feel safe.  It lets you see into the darkness and wards off those scary things we just know are lurking out there just beyond the light.   So there will be times when, as the leader, you will need to get a campfire going just to help keep up group morale.

You may also need to know how to make some hurried and makeshift shelter from rain or snow.  Made correctly it can keep you warm in the worst blizzards and can, like fire, help make an improvement in morale.  Can you do it?  Can everyone in your party do it if you should be injured or taken out?

losing the Light, Salt River Canyon

Late afternoon light accents outcrops in the Salt River Canyon, Arizona, near Globe, AZ. Canon 5D MkII

Navigation in the woods and mountains is quite different from the flatter terrain of the typical desert.  Your view is obstructed and there are a gazillion trees to confuse you; light is filtered and harder to detect directions especially when the wind is blowing the trees.  Although counter-intuitive, it has been shown in study after study that without external guidance, humans cannot walk in a straight line even if they know what general direction they should be headed.  The moment you think you might be lost or at least a little bewildered as to your exact location, STOP.  (Now is time for the 30-second stare.)

Get out your map, look for recognizable landmarks, and try to determine where – at least generally – you are and where you need to be.  If your GPS is working and can “see” the satellites it needs, great.  But if not, you will need to rely on some pre-GPS orienteering skills.  Knowing where you need to go is useless unless you know where you are.  And knowing the target is due east is not all that helpful if between you and the target is an unscalable cliff that you can’t see from where you are.  Can you read a map and understand what all those contour lines bunched together mean?  Can you then plan the best route around the obstacle?  This is not a rhetorical exercise; people get in big trouble and some die every year because they cannot solve this simple problem.  It is easy to solve when you know how… so learn how long before you really need it.

If you are headed into the mountains, especially if you are someone from low altitude and expecting to be spending time above about 5,000 ft in elevation, then also read up on altitude sickness and plan to deal with it.  It is not a small issue so take it very seriously.  I include handout material on it with materials for all of my workshops into the high country.  It can be completely debilitating and, in some cases, deadly, and the only cure is getting to a lower altitude where there is more oxygen.

I hope I’ve gotten your attention with this post and made you aware that although most photo treks go smoothly resulting with the capture of great memories and gorgeous imagery, when they DO go off the rails, things can get serious – deadly serious – in a moment.  The best approach is planning that will keep them on the rails.  The more you plan and prepare, the more unlikely an “adventure” will occur and that is the result to be hoped for.  Preparing for the worst makes you more aware, more careful, more attentive, and that alone can keep your photo train on the rails.

The next post(s), however, will deal with some issues when, despite your planning, things go awry.  And with that discussion we’ll talk about some items you ought to have with you, either on you or perhaps in your camera gear, when you trek out of shouting distance from the parking lot.

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Dealing with Nature – PArt 1: Letting It Talk to You

To paraphrase Minor White, an iconic figure in photography and photo education, (and the author who co-wrote the book that made Adams’s “Zone System” intelligible to us mortals), if nature sees in you a heart it can trust, it will wait for you.  I’ve found that to be true but it will do a lot more than that: it will even tell you HOW to it thinks you should photograph it.  Like a stereotypical Hollywood starlet who knows her best side, nature knows itself and will reveal that knowledge to you.

The problem is that nature’s voice is so soft and quiet, the photographer whose ear drums are calloused by the raucous noises of the city, cannot easily hear it. It speaks in a very quiet whisper as it interfaces with your spirit and mind and via recalled memories speaks metaphorically to you.  Some of you sci-fi and “trekky” fans may recall a “Next Generation” story of the crew trying to communicate with a race that only spoke in metaphors.  Well nature is like that and, to make matters worse, it only whispers.

Now if you come out with some preconceived idea of what a scene is all about then by all means keep the ear phones blasting heavy metal and blaze away.  Then you can add your postcard snapshot to the several billion nearly identical shots of that amazing scene.  For example, when you pull into the parking area at the “Tunnel View” overlook in Yosemite, go ahead, run to the overlook and take the shot.  It’s beautiful and if you can shove your way through the crowd (especially if a tour bus arrived a few minutes ahead of you) then by all means, go ahead and get it out of your system.

But then settle back, let the crowd disperse, and consider this: art is the product of interpretation – not of narration.  The artist (we’re talking photography here but it applies equally to painting or drawing) seeks to understand the subject, filter that understanding through their own experiences, histories, associations, emotional responses, etc. and then, using their skills and mastery of tools, create the image that (it is hoped) will best render that interpretation. In short, the artist/photographer endeavors to capture NOT what specifically they SEE, but what they FEEL.  But, for that image to be honest and accurate, that process starts with understanding, and that understanding is best achieved by letting nature tell you about herself while letting you tell yourself a bit about yourself.  That does not happen in the blur of a rush to get your shot before having to get back on the bus.

So how do you start?  You start by letting your heart tweak you when it recognizes something important. When you are moving through the landscape, clear your mind of other thoughts and sounds and disruptive things.  Just open yourself to the sensory input from your surroundings.  When it happens, that tweak might be a gentle nudge that makes you want to pause and look again, or it might be a strong kick in the gut.  There might be a quiet moment of recognition or a hard jolt to your senses.  But when it happens, the very first thing to do is STOP.  Sit down if you can.  Be STILL.  Give it what a barbarian friend of mine used to call “The 30-Second Stare” where you get quiet and still and really start visually and emotionally inventorying the scene in front of you.

That friend first used the term with me to address a major problem back exploring in the Rockies.  His definition of an “adventure” was the result of a failure of planning.  He believed we actually knew what to do but the panic and fear overwhelmed us and we could not access the data needed.  Hence… the 30-second stare (in my case it often took a bit longer…) to quietly assess the situation, look at intended resolutions, examine the resources needed to solve it, and then set about doing so.  But it is exactly the same exercise needed to let nature talk to you and help you hone in on how it wants to be rendered by you and you alone.  Another artist will respond differently and interpret the scene differently.  That is why it is an art not a science.

Start a series of “What” and “Why” questions and drill down as far as you can go.  First, as you scan the view in front of you, ask yourself what specific thing in that scene was what actually caught your attention.  A tree?  A rock?  A lake?  A trail?  A structure? A leaf?  A cloud? Or was it the awesome visual power of the whole scene?

Whitney Portal: incoming storm

Storm drops over Mt. Whitney and down the Whitney Portal Canyon in the Sierras of California near alabama Hills and Lone Pine

I once was given the project of updating the off-road trail maps for a large section of the Colorado Rockies.  We were given the original USGS topo maps the original teams had used and which had their notes on them.  They had marked places they thought would provide great vistas usually with a simple icon.  But in all of the maps, there was one only spot where the team, in a red marker, wrote the single word “WOW!”  We had multiple vehicles and had split up sections and another driver had “drawn” that section to cover.  Over the radio he hailed me in this excited voice and I thought maybe he was in trouble.  But he said to me, “Do you remember where the map had the note, “WOW!” on it?”  I said I did.  He simply said, “’WOW’ doesn’t quite express it…!”  We lost a day’s work but the entire team stopped where they were and went to see for themselves.  Wow.

Any and everything could be a potential magnet for your attention here, even if meaningless to someone else, so don’t overlook the tiny while overwhelmed by the mighty.  Remember the old adage about not seeing the forest for the trees?  Well, here, don’t fail to see the trees for the forest… or the leaf for the tree.  And don’t worry about what others see or feel.  Your art needs to express YOU and your reaction, not theirs.

So whatever it is that has caught your attention, sit and study it; let its presence flood your mind and heart and then ask yourself “Why?”  Why did it grab you?  What was it about the object that captured your attention?  Was it the shape, the form, the texture, the color?  And then ask “Why?” again.  What emotion did that elicit from you?  Awe?  Terror?  Something pleasant?  Something irritating?  And then again, ask, “Why?”  What is it you are remembering from your own experiences or history that was triggered by seeing that object?  What does it remind you of?  Why does that memory elicit the emotion you felt, however weakly?

Patriarch Bones

Taken at the Patriarch’s Grove, Ancient Bristlecone Pines Forest, White Mtns, CA. B&W version of the “Bones of the Patriarch” shot several years earlier. Rhinocam mosaic using Hasselblad-Zeiss 180mm f4

Now work your way back up the chain.  What is it about the subject that most strongly elicits that emotional response?  Now review the whole scene.  Does the response come from the subject alone with the rest of the scene remaining more or less irrelevant?  Or do other elements in the scene support that response or even add to it? What is the real core of the scene – the focal point?  What elements need to be eliminated or subdued?  What compositional devices, e.g. use of perspective, directional lines, element placement, etc. would best convey your response?

When you have those answers… you have your image in mind.  Now and only now is it time to get technical.  What is, based on your mastery of the craft and tools of your art, the best platform for you to create your image.  What vantage point?  What lens?  What aperture?  What shutter speed?

So what’s holding you up now? Don’t just stand there with your face hanging out…take the damn shot!

Red Oak on Old 80 - 05 for blog

Skip Cohen, photographer and instructor, wrote that you can’t tug at a viewer’s heart strings if your own heart is not in the shot.  Once again for emphasis: quite worrying about capturing what you see and start putting everything into capturing what you feel.  That lets you present to the viewers something they would not or could not have seen themselves, would not or could not have felt and experienced for themselves – and that is YOUR response now available to them.  You can practice that anywhere and should be doing something concerning your photography every day.  Then you’ll be ready for finding those stunning images when heading into the bush.


But some people are really nervous heading off the trail and out into nature.  But if you learn nature’s rules and follow them, a whole new world of wonder can open before your eyes. So next time, we’ll talk a little about the “rules” so you can be safe and comfortable out in nature.

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Why Do (or Teach) Landscape Photography?

I confess I’m getting really excited about potentially being able to do another Landscape (Photo 245) course at City. (For details click on the link in the banner at the top of this page.)  I’ve not yet heard if it was approved but since students had been asking about it I’m very, very hopeful.  I’ve worked on a preliminary itinerary for topics to cover because I want to make it the best we’ve ever had.  But I also have to be aware that the world of photography is changing and changing dramatically — after all I just wrote a book on it (  And perhaps, more important to us, from a professional AND educational level is that the world we work in is also changing dramatically and it will have a profound effect, some of it quite negative, on not only how we do our work but how we make a living from it.

Most of you are aware that even the great iconic landscape photographers (think Ansel Adams as the easiest example) did not make their livings just from their landscape images.  Adams was a master darkroom technician but he was also a master marketer and understood that being able to merchandise his images would bring in extra revenue hence the books and posters and calendars and postcards of his images.  He also did commercial work and (you might want to be sitting down for this…) did commercial work for one of the (then) major oil companies taking photographs of their gas stations around the country for calendars and posters. In my case I was primarily a commercial product and editorial portrait photographer who used landscape as a personal artistic and emotional outlet that had the wonderful by-product of getting me into the bush and out of the studio and town.

Many modern landscape photographers support their artwork with teaching, school or workshops or both, and/or by writing books or producing tutorials and demos for the web.  Still a major goal was always the creation of “take your breath away” wall hanging shots to rival even those of the master landscape painters such as Bierstadt or Moran.  One of my fun facts is that I have a landscape photo hanging next to a Rubens painting in a castle in Colorado… what a rush.  But before one gets too enraptured with this, do some math and budgeting.  How much do new, as-yet-not-famous photographers get for a photograph?  What does it cost you to produce that photograph counting travel and actual print and display costs?  What is your net?  If you hang in a gallery you will be lucky to get 50% of the sales price.  So how many prints must you sell per month to maintain the revenue stream necessary to maintain the standard of living to which you aspire? Those were the issues in the good old days when people had homes with wall space that could visually support such art and had the discretionary income to afford it.

That was also before everyone with a cell phone thought they were God’s gift to photography, an attitude reinforced when their social media friends see their beyond-mediocre images made with frenzied filter use and then posted on Facebook, and pronounced them as beautiful and stunning imagery.  And it was before photo-feature magazines like “Life” or gorgeous outdoor magazines like “Arizona Highways” and “Colorado & The Rocky Mountains” succumbed to the web’s unrelenting assault on publications, books, magazines, and newspapers.

Well, you may ask, if I have that grim outlook, why do a course in a genre that is tough to make a living doing?  Or, more to the point, as a student you might ask why would you take the time and cost to attend such a course?  I’m glad you asked, otherwise I’d have no real reason for writing this post.

One of the biggest reasons is that it is in this genre where you can openly and unabashedly work on the artistic component in your imagery.  Yes, I believe it will be increasing the brilliance of your unique vision and concept that will be required to set your commercial work apart from the competition as technology continues to level the technical playing field.  But honing and growing that conceptual ability along with the tools to render your vision, not to mention the exercises to develop your vision in the first place, can best be done away from the constraints of clients and art directors whose vision is often at odds with yours but whose vision and successful rendering may determine whether or not you walk away with a check.  In landscape work it is yours – and only your – vision and story that counts and will support the image you are creating.  Art is about interpretation not narration.  To interpret a scene you have to “feel” it so there is something to pass on to the viewer.  Without a story that elicits an emotional response and some reflective thinking there is nothing to attract, much less hold a viewer’s interest.  Landscape scenery presents itself to you stripped of the marketing needs and advertising copy attending the commercial piece; you and you alone can let the world see it as YOU see and feel it.

You and you alone can make the choices of tools and elements to bring to bear to render your own unique vision; you and you alone can make the artistic decisions as to what is the real subject of the scene and what do you wish to tell the viewer about it.  Minor White told his students that if a subject in nature saw in them someone it felt capable of rendering its “portrait” it would wait for them.  And it is true that at times nature can be extremely patient with you, unlike a client or director hovering over you pressing you to “get on with it” or losing confidence when you hesitate to think through a visual problem.

The really successful commercial shooter is one who can take the most mundane product and produce an image of it so appealing that someone can see it, and even having no clue what they are looking at, want to buy it anyway.  The conceptual and technical ability to do that shot after shot is often best honed in the quiet moments looking at something most people pass by and never notice – a rock, a leaf, a cloud.

Arthur Koestler in his book on creativity, wrote that the truly creative people he had studied and done biographies about all shared a common trait: they were able, “…to see the familiar as strange.” They could look at some common item and somehow see it as if they were seeing it for the first time without all of the normal limitations prior experience has placed on it.  That ability is as necessary to the advertising image of a muffler as it is to a nature detail shot of a crack in the sun-baked desert floor.  But it is easier to learn in the quiet unrushed environment of nature.

Nature photography also allows time to really learn one’s tools and how they all uniquely render a subject; one can learn how lens focal length and distance changes perspective; one can learn about lighting through observation of what happens as the sun moves across the sky to change the visual appearance of the  world under it; one can learn about color and color correction by having to deal with and exploit not just neutral color of normal daylight, but the so-called “golden” and “blue” hours.  Outdoor photography requires the artist to learn to feel the light and deal with scenes where the range of luminosity from shadow to highlight exceeds that of their medium – an ability of equal value in the studio.  And they can learn all that in an environment where their livelihoods are not at stake, and where errors and mistakes can become educational experiences and not strikes against employment.

The artistic skills you can learn doing top-quality landscape work are perfectly adoptable to the commercial world and will, in fact, help to set you apart in the approaching world of increasing sameness.  In our course we will be examining many of those elements to create powerful landscape imagery.  But it will be important to remember, they all have a proper and important place when you are shooting in the studio for a client.  The difference is only in that when doing landscape and artwork, YOU are the client, and your payment is the serotonin released when you can really see that the effort paid off with a great image.

So for me, it is fun to develop this course almost from scratch.  Retirement has given me the time to play with it, turn it over and over and really analyze where, in my own work which, as noted, was primarily commercial, did it apply and help me.  For the successful photographer the marriage of abilities usually seen as separate and apart is necessary.  We think of the “art” photographer as primarily interested in those aesthetic issues of the image and less concerned with the technical.  And we think of the commercial photographer as primarily interested in the technical side of things and less in the aesthetic.  But that is an incredibly false dichotomy.

The truly superb art photographers, like Adams (to bring this full circle) were absolute masters of the technical and “Craft” sides of their work. After all he was the co-creator of the Zone System for exposure and development mastery.  And the really superb commercial shooters were and are masters of the aesthetics and artistic sides of their work.  Both were masters of rendering a vision of that familiar object now seen as strange.  White told students to see things, “…not for what they are, but for what ELSE they are.”

So landscape photography can be as important to your photo growth as any specific skill and discipline if – IF – you also learn to take advantage of the less stressful shooting environment to hone those skills you will need in the professional world.  And while you are at it, you may produce some imagery that actually does generate some revenue directly or indirectly.  And best yet, you can do it in some of the most beautiful places on the planet.

How could that not be attractive to you?

In subsequent posts I’ll address some of the specific issues and elements we will be addressing in the course and in other photo courses and topics as well.

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