Negative: Painful lessons and stories in landscape photography

Part I.

You click the little heart in your feed, meaning well. But, as if wearing a poppy on Remembrance Day, the pain endured in the pursuit of great landscape photography will never be known. (Yes, it’s exactly the same thing.)

This is the journal of my struggle in elevating my skills in basic photography to an art.

On a whim, I booked a flight to Palm Springs, next door neighbour to Joshua Tree, one of the all-time coolest places I’ve learned about on Earth thus far. I enjoy the serenity and minimalism of the desert, and cheap tacos.

At around the same time, I was discovering some genuinely great 21st century photographers on Instagram, many of r/Earthporn and r/pics fame. As life sometimes quietly implies, I decided to turn this little opportunity into my first legit travel photography trip.

Ever since I stumbled upon my Dad’s Pentax ME Super in a closet and started fiddling around with it, one thing has always irked me. I could never figure out how some photographers were able to obtain such stellar results with their images, using some combination of a similar camera, lens, and darkroom (I’m old, whaddyawant) to what I had been using. This pang of annoyance in the back of my mind continued for 17 years until 3 weeks ago when I had suddenly just about had it with all the god damned mystery.

I referenced my knowledge of what I knew was scientifically possible in the digital age against what I saw in the Insta halls of fame, and from what I could tell… it didn’t seem that hard. It wasn’t pseudo science, it wasn’t the result of a dump truck of disposable income, it was trained technique, and I was basically halfway there, having frequently used a DSLR on manual mode ‘n stuf.

But I was wrong, so very wrong. So wrong in fact, that I’m not sure what to make of my trip, now that I’m back. Yes, it was full of beauty and wonder and adventure, but damn, it was hard. Really, really hard. Of my 64 waking hours I spent away from home, I spent about a third of those hours driving. My lazy sleep schedule was destroyed, I was sleeping just after sunset and waking up at 5am because in between were only useless, non-photographable hours. The full moon was out and I didn’t have much of a clue about shooting at night so don’t you be suggestin’ astrophotography. That would have also ruined what little joy I had left by at least sleeping a decent number of hours per night.

The first time I took out all my gear, I actually laughed, because despite my ruthlessness for planning, it was still cumbersome as hell. There were caps and filters and cloths and something that looks a bit like a baster but is actually pretty useful, not to mention fragile as fuck multi-thousand dollar lenses, all amongst a sea of sand and rocks. I had to constantly balance thoughtfulness for composition amongst being torn a new one by my brother, the owner of all this fine equipment. Then there was the tripod and frankly, how is there still nothing better? It’s big and takes so long to set up and you have to carry it everywhere. It’s hard to get just right, despite it being a pretty good one. Yet I honestly believe there isn’t a better way to go about any of this.

As the sun set on the desert, I noticed that I had walked quite a ways from my heavy backpack of gear, and I had also put down my zoom lens near that rock.

Oh shit, where’s the zoom lens?

I’m sure it was near that rock. Or was it? Now that I think about it, everything looks the same out here. Cue panic for $2000 lens missing in the desert as the sun is setting. I’ve never walked in an outward spiral so earnestly. Funny marching and logic paid off and I found the lens.

Of course, this ate into my precious sunset hours. All that other type of light from our sun, totally useless. You have sunrise light, sunset light, and maybe light, that’s it.

Beyond the need for the right light that can take a photo from basic biotch to semi-pro, finding the right composition can often seem impossible. I frequently wondered what those photographer hot shots would do with bland, lightly populated cactus gardens and monotone mountains. Probably take the shot and then delete it later, I bitterly mused.

There was a lot more to think about: safety, such as not rolling off a cliff, not getting mauled and eaten by a gang of coyotes, not slipping off a rock and having to choose between your skull or your bro’s gear. Not sure if coyotes maul and eat people but the point is, I had to think.

You also want a subject that’s especially interesting, the natural world is full of boring junk. Then there are a lot of technical aspects of this whole thing, which is called, taking a good picture. I’d say there are roughly 15–20 variables involved in taking a technically perfect photo, plus quite a few tricks, outside the more abstract elements of composition. It’s very easy to miss just one thing and mess up your shot despite having everything else right. Luckily we live in the age of RAW photos and computers 10,000x more powerful than the one on the space shuttle or what ever so you can fix a few things later. Having said that, nothing will ever beat a good ol’ fashioned, well-executed photo. There are a lot of people who throw shade on Photoshop, but it really can not make a bad photo good. And to be fair, all the greats were just doing the same shit, just in dark rooms getting cancer on their hands in the process. Until we learn to control the weather in about 5 years, the techniques involved landscape photography will remain timeless.

All expectations have gone right out the window in my first few days of learning landscape photography. Almost every shot I thought would be great was not. Some of the shots I thought would suck didn’t entirely. The parts I thought would be easy and hard were way off. And whaddya know, there’s a bit of skill to this whole thing after all.

My final pieces from my trip to Joshua Tree National Park and Death Valley National Park are below. If you like them, I wish I could tell you it was pretty easy and I’m a natural. But in fact, it was an arduous process that, if you don’t like them, would be embarrassing to admit.

Clearly not a landscape, just a curious lil coyote.