Visionary Wild, LLC • 2200 19th St. NW, Ste 806, Washington, DC 20009

E-mail: info@visionarywild.com    •    Tel: 1-202-558-9596 (9am to 6pm, EST).    •    Justin Black’s iPhone: 1-202-302-9030

We look forward to hearing from you!

 

Justin Black Interview with PhotographyTalk.com

In April 2015, Justin Black sat down with PhotographyTalk.com founder Alex Schult. Here’s the full interview.

Alex: Hi Justin, welcome to Photography Talk.

Justin: It’s a pleasure to be here, Alex.

Alex: I understand that 2015 marks your 20th year as a professional photographer. How does that feel?

Justin: Well, it’s been a wild ride, and I’m very fortunate to still be doing what I love.

What inspired you to become a photographer?

The power of the still image. It both communicates information and evokes emotion instantly, and it also invites inspection and interrogation over time. It allows us to look at the world in a way that we don’t directly experience. A photograph renders the fleeting moment eternal.

When I was in junior high school, I took a communications class called Media Arts. Among other things, we learned the basics of developing black & white film and making prints, which was magic to me. There’s still nothing quite like seeing an image emerge on a sheet of paper in the the glow of a darkroom safe light. I wish I had access to a traditional darkroom and the time it takes to use it, but I digress… After that, I became increasingly interested in photography and started devouring books and magazines on the subject and going to photography exhibits at the many art galleries in Washington, DC. At the same time, I was generally interested in art.

Early on, there were a few photographers whose work particularly got me excited about photography as an art form and as a career: Eliot Porter, André Kertész, Minor White, Wynn Bullock, Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Cartier-Bresson, Galen Rowell, Frans Lanting, David Muench, and Jack Dykinga. I’ve since had the privilege of working and teaching with the last four of these.

Tell us about your first sale. 

You mean besides photographing a friend’s Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen? I don’t remember my very first photo sale after I started my career in 1995, but my first memorable photo license around that time was a picture of classic storefronts in downtown Mansfield, Ohio, that was used on Mastercard credit cards. That sale netted me about $7,000.

 Fast forward to today, you run a very successful photography business, tell us how that started.

Well, I guess you could say it was what I call “the upward spiral” – one experience leading to the next, to the next; one supporting the other, until everything comes into alignment. Over the last two decades, my work has included being a landscape, travel, and wildlife photographer, a contributor of photo-text packages to publications, a stock photo licensing specialist, image archive manager, gallery curator, photo workshops director, photo business general manager, book editor, and the executive director of a global conservation photography NGO. Over the years, I’ve developed a following for my editioned prints, done both commercial and editorial photography on assignment, and licensed my work for publication and advertising. One area I’ve found that gives me the tremendous satisfaction, however, is creating exceptional learning and travel experiences for other passionate photographers.

In late 2010, I left my position as executive director of the International League of Conservation Photographers to create Visionary Wild, which is in some ways a continuation of the workshops program I rebuilt at Mountain Light Photography from 2002 to 2009, after the deaths of my friends Galen and Barbara Rowell, who perished in the crash of a chartered airplane. Of course, with Visionary Wild we’ve now gone way beyond what we were doing at Mountain Light, both in terms of international scope and quality.

What has been your proudest moment as a photographer?

That’s easy. Helping to save the pristine Flathead River Valley in southeast British Columbia from a massive mountain-top-removal coal mine that threatened to wreck the entire trans-border watershed. I collaborated with a great team of photographers on that project when I was at ILCP, and its very clear that our photos turned the tide in the conservation campaign to save the place.

Tell us about your book.

Both my photography and my writing have been published in several books, though I haven’t produced a monograph yet. I’ve edited and managed several photo book projects for Galen Rowell and the International League of Conservation Photographers. The ones I’m proudest of are Galen Rowell: A Retrospective (Sierra Club Books), and Freshwater: The Essence of Life (ILCP)

Tell us about time in your career where you failed at something and how did you pivot to overcome this? 

Back in 1995, I was trying to get a contract to have my work represented by Pictor, a UK-based stock photo agency that I worked for as a picture researcher. I was a naïve kid, but I guess I had enough passion and raw talent that their creative director, a jolly Italian guy named Alberto Sciama, decided to give me a chance. He gave me a few rolls of film and a simple assignment to go out and make some marketable images.

When I brought him the results, he patiently looked them over with a loupe at a light table, and then said in a lilting Italian accent, “Justin, you are a lovely boy, but this is crap.” I knew it too. I learned three important lessons that day. The first was to set high standards for my work and to always push myself to do better. The second was to shoot what I love, rather than what I think other people want me to shoot. The third is that well-informed, forthright feedback on one’s work is immensely valuable, especially when it isn’t what we want to hear.

Have you had an “I’ve made it moment”?

I’ve had a few, I guess. The first was when Alberto actually gave me a contract to shoot for Pictor. That was a gateway to a steady, livable income from my photography, though it would only be another six years before Pictor went belly up because they couldn’t adapt fast enough to the new digital paradigm in the stock photo industry.  In the bankruptcy chaos that followed, I lost most of the original film I had shot for them, so in the end it was a mixed blessing. Another high point was a few years later when some significant galleries started to exhibit my work. The most recent was when I realized that Visionary Wild was actually going to be a success.

How do you balance a demanding photography career and your family?

My wife, Lena, is the most wonderful, insightful, and supportive woman in the world, that’s how. Two years ago, our young son wasn’t very understanding of my travel schedule, but now, even at age five, he takes it in stride pretty well. I travel at least a third of the year, I miss them, and they miss me. It’s not a simple thing, but as you say, it’s about balance. When I’m home, I try to focus on family as much as I can.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to the 21 year old you?

Make pictures for yourself, not for the market. In other words, be true to your own vision, interests, and passions. In the 1990s, I spent a lot of time and resources making images that were designed to be highly salable in the stock photography market. They did sell, but most of that early work is totally irrelevant to me now because it isn’t representative of what I have to say and what I want to do with my photography. Thematically, my work has gone in a very different direction.

I’m a big believer in the notion that artists and communicators ought to aspire to find a market for the work that is true to them, rather than tailoring their work to fit the demands of the market. It’s important to understand the market, but it’s become clear to me over the years that photographs with meaning and longevity arise from the photographer having something to say and a unique vision to share, not from cynically engineering images for maximum payback.

Of course, most young aspiring photographers need some serious advice with regard to the fundamentals of operating a business, valuing their work, copyright management, etc., but I am lucky to have had a pretty good education in those areas very early on.

What is the best photography business advice you have been given.

It’s really just good business advice in general: “Be your brand.” In other words, your professional identity will ultimately become whatever it really is, not what you assert it to be or what you wish it were. For your brand to be what you want it to be, you have to live it and be authentic. Be honest, be reliable, don’t make promises you can’t keep, always put in the hard work to do the best job you can, and value what you do.

Another bit of advice is to make five-year and ten-year business plans, know your cost of doing business, and to price your work in a way that positions you to meet your goals for your business and your personal life. Learn to negotiate in such a way that communicates the value of your work, and don’t compete on price at the expense of the viability of your business or your long-term goals. Be willing to say “no” and walk away from bad deals – you’d be surprised how often I’ve had clients call back to accept a price quote after initially saying that they can’t afford it.

If you want to own a house or put your child through college, you’re not going to do it by simply accepting whatever scraps lowballing clients want to pay you. Don’t believe the notion that you have to work for free to pay your dues. Rather than starting at the bottom and working your way up, figure out how you can effectively target and deliver a great value proposition at the higher end of the market. Build a base of clients who see the value in what you do, and don’t bother with the ones who can’t afford the fees you need to charge to be successful. The obvious flip side of this is that if you can’t pull off charging the fees you need to meet your goals, you’ll have to rethink your career choice. There is no shame in being a talented amateur photographer. For one thing, amateurs are free to make whatever photographs they like with no regard for any market or audience at all.

Oh, and diversify revenue sources so if one part of your market dries up, you can focus more on the others.

We live in a world of carbon copies, what advice can you give to those seeking to be unique and unlike others in a congested industry?

Simple, I’ll quote Polonius: “To thine own self be true.” It’s important for photographers to be honest with themselves about what their own genuine passions are. We all do our best work when we are photographing subjects and themes that are deeply important to us, and doing it in a way that feels right to us as individuals. I’ll give you an example from my own personal experience. You have to understand that I went to work for Galen back in 1999, it was a dream come true. I was 25 and he was one of my photographic idols. I experienced a little anxiety because I hadn’t yet climbed in the Himalaya or undertaken bold rock climbs of new routes in Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada as Galen had done. I thought I would never catch up to his achievements. Gradually, I realized that while I admired Galen and his work, I wasn’t personally interested in photographing the adventure sports, mountaineering expeditions, and other types of adventure-oriented work that Galen had done over the course of his career. There was already a Galen Rowell, and I needed to be Justin Black.

Do you believe technology is making better photographers?

It depends on what you mean by that. For instance, I don’t think that technology has made the best photographers today better than André Kertész, Ernst Haas, Minor White, or Eliot Porter. A truly great photographer will always find a way to make the medium say what they want, and having something to say is the important thing. I do think that these days it’s easier to make more pictures at a higher standard of technical image quality, in part because technology has made the process easier and more forgiving, and in part because the internet provides incredible access to information about photographic technique.

When comes to seeing, composition, having a meaningful point of view or voice, however, the benefits of technology seem to be limited to the advances in communication and access to media. Via the internet, photographers can study more pictures and engage in more conversations about photography, art, and other media than they may have been able to in the past, but they ought to be choosy about the way they engage these resources. Arguing online over which camera brand is better or how much digital manipulation is acceptable doesn’t move the art forward. Since photography was invented, a gulf has always existed between those who are merely technicians on the one side, and those who use the medium to communicate in a meaningful and interesting way that contributes something new to human culture and understanding.

Of course, digital cameras and workflow are great tools for learning. The opportunity for quick feedback is wonderful, but one still needs to be able to thoughtfully analyze the work to learn from mistakes. This takes a certain visual vocabulary, to enable the photographer to understand what to look for, what works and what doesn’t. We try to teach this in our workshops.

What do you see photographers doing today, that if done differently tomorrow would improve their success?

If every photographer started demanding fees and contractual terms that enable them to operate a growing, sustainable business, and that support raising a family, buying a house, putting the kids through college, and a reasonable retirement, then you had better believe conditions and opportunities would improve significantly for photographers.  By and large, photographers undervalue their work. Too few…

• Develop and follow a business plan, much less one designed for success and growth.

• Determine a CDB (cost of doing business)

• Learn to negotiate terms and fees in a manner that is beneficial to them over the long term

• Walk away from bad deals.

• Charge appropriately for valuable rights that clients may hope to be given for no additional charge.

While I do occasionally donate my work and time for charitable causes I believe in, this is almost always in the context of a scenario where many other parties (other than photographers and artists) are likewise donating time, labor, materials, content, etc. If the project has a budget for things like advertising space, graphic designers, writers, editors, PR staff, development staff, travel, and the electric bill, I generally expect to be paid fairly also at rates that I set based on the needs of my business. The artist too often is the only party expected to donate or heavily discount their work and in the process diminish its value. In general, photographers ought to feel perfectly justified in charging fairly for value delivered, rights granted, and services rendered, even when working for charities doing important work.

Unfortunately, there are also an increasing number of photographers out there who don’t actually rely on sales of their photography for their livelihood, and who offer work for sale at unsustainable rates, primarily for the sake of tax write offs or the empty ego boost of referring to themselves as “professional photographers.” Most have never had their work vetted by professional editors or curators, and they typically never net a profit on their photographic activities. I don’t have anything at all against new photographers entering the market, but I do have a problem with undervaluing one’s work to make a sale at any cost, as the cumulative effect over time is to diminish opportunity even for the most talented and business-savvy photographers who do rely on photography for their livelihoods.

Many folks are trying to re-invent themselves as photographers.  Assuming you had camera, lens and lighting gear already.  If you had to start over and only have $500 budget to get your business started.  How would you spend that $500 budget?

If the person in question was mostly interested in trying to sell a little photography on the side but wasn’t relying on it as their primary source of income, I’d recommend they spend the money on a website. If they hope to change careers to photography as a full-time profession, I would recommend that they spend the money on a meeting with an expert business consultant who would explain that the proposed business is insufficiently capitalized to be successful. I’m serious about this. To seriously undertake photography as a competitive full-time business takes some financial resources and a well-thought-out business plan.

What are some resources that you use regularly for your photography business? 

These days, my most important resource is communication with my network of professional peers and clients. It’s a big ongoing dialog and we share a lot of information. Besides that, I use Fotoquote, the Editorial Photographers’ forum, and Negotiating Stock Photo Prices a lot.

What are some ‘must have’ items in your camera bag?

My Nikon D810 cameras, the 24mm, 45mm, and 85mm PC-E Nikkor tilt-shift lenses, and 70-200mm f/4 Nikkor zoom.  This combination has not only replaced the 4×5 film outfit I used to use for my landscape work, but – using stitching techniques – it has exceeded it. For wildlife, I use Nikkor 200-400mm f/4 and 500mm f/4 lenses plus 1.4x teleconverter. My macro lens is the wonderful Nikkor 200mm f/4. I also sometimes carry 18-35mm and 24-70mm Nikkor zooms. I’ve recently acquired a Sigma 50mm f/1.4 Art Series lens, which is simply superb and a lot of fun.

If you were stuck on a deserted island, what is the ONE photography book you would want to have with you? 

Diary of Light: 1912-1985, by André Kertész. I could look at his compositions over and over forever and always extract new insights and meaning from them.

Here’s a fun one:  Life has been found on another planet and none-other than Sir Richard Branson is piloting Virgin Galatica and has put together a team of engineers, scientist, and doctors and has asked you to come along to document the journey.  The challenge is you can only bring two lenses and one camera body and two other items.  What would you bring? 

I’d probably bring a Nikon D810, 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor for spacecraft interiors (assuming cramped quarters), 24-120mm f/4 Nikkor for general purpose photography, a powerful microscope, and a Nikon F-mount to microscope adapter. After all, life on Earth consisted entirely of single-celled organisms for 2.6 billion years until multicellular life evolved one billion years ago, so odds are that the aliens would be invisible to the naked eye.

What action steps can you recommend our listeners take immediately that will ultimately help them become a better photographer?

There are a few things I would recommend. First, I like to point out that photography is a practice. We take it for granted that a musical prodigy like Yo-Yo Ma still plays scales and practices on his cello frequently, and that top athletes like LeBron James train obsessively to stay at the top of their game. Photography is no different. Eliot Porter once said, “You learn to see by practice. It’s just like playing tennis, you get better the more you play. The more you look around at things, the more you see. The more you photograph, the more you realize what can be photographed and what can’t be photographed. You just have to keep doing it.”

I also suggest spending a little time every day looking thoughtfully and critically at two-dimensional art, especially cohesive bodies of work like a particular exhibit, project, or photo essay. Photographs, paintings, drawings, abstracts… anything. Why does it work? Where does it fail? How could it be better? Does it sacrifice longevity and deeper meaning in favor of immediate eye-grabbing impact? Think about point of view and perspective. Think about quality and source of light, line, form, texture, color contrasts, etc. It’s all about building visual vocabulary and familiarity so you can make good creative judgments when it matters.

Then, find other photographers with whom you can share your work and get meaningful feedback from. Make sure that everyone is willing engage in thoughtful and honest constructive critique. I find that doing this in person is far more productive and useful than doing it on an online forum if you can.

Finally, this is a self-serving, but if I am to answer the question honestly based on my observations and experience, I’d say take a Visionary Wild workshop. I’m serious. Our first-time workshop participants are consistently amazed at what an eye-opening experience our programs are. They often tell me that they learned more at our workshop than from any other source. Our workshops and trips generally include 50% to 100% repeat clients – folks keep coming back, time and time again. I have some clients who have taken over a dozen workshops with me, and their work has become very strong indeed over that time.

Thanks for taking the time to talk, Justin.

Thank you, Alex! It’s been a pleasure.

NATURE’S BEST PHOTOGRAPHY – AFRICA

NatBestAfricaBanner

You may already be aware of the prestigious Nature’s Best / Windland Smith Rice Photography Awards, featuring an exhibit of winning photographs at the Smithsonian each year. We are pleased to announce that Visionary Wild instructor Lou Coetzer has collaborated with Nature’s Best to create a new annual competition focusing entirely on subjects from the African continent. Visionary Wild founder, Justin Black, has been invited to serve on the inaugural judging panel.

Click here for details: NATURE’S BEST PHOTOGRAPHY – AFRICA

Entries will be accepted through May 3rd, 2015, in the categories listed below. Prizes include photo safaris in Kenya, Tanzania, and South Africa, as well as exhibition at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, and the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town. Mark your calendar and spread the word!

2015 CATEGORIES
• African Landscapes
• African Culture
• Wild Cats of Africa
• Birds of Africa
• Mammals of Africa
• Reptiles of Africa
• Africa Underwater
• Africa Up Close
• Africa Wildlife Story
• Youth Award (ages 13-18)
• Video

 

Justin Black Video Interview by PhotographyTalk.com

Recently, Alex Schult of PhotographyTalk.com sat down with Visionary Wild’s Justin Black – virtually, via Skype – for an interview recorded for their Success Interviews series, revealing the creative inspiration and path to success of noted photographers working today. Click here to watch the full 39-minute interview.

An Elegant Portfolio Website Solution

justin-demoAmateur and professional photographers alike are constantly seeking elegant solutions to display their best work online. We are excited to announce that our friends at Paupress have launched Justin, a new e-commerce enabled website solution for photographers, and indeed all visual artists. Click here to check it out. In its most basic form, Justin is a WordPress theme based on the fundamental design, architecture, and functionality of Visionary Wild founder Justin Black’s recently re-launched portfolio website, www.justinblackphoto.com. For those seeking to manage online sales and customer contacts, Justin is designed to seamlessly integrate with a powerful and easy-to-use customer relationship management and e-commerce tool created by our friends at Paupress. Users can opt for simple, portfolio-only functionality, or for full e-commerce and CRM support. The theme can be customized to suit the artist’s individual tastes and needs. If you’d like to present your best work online in an elegant, clean, and effective and professional manner, we invite you to check out the Justin theme at Paupress – www.paupress.com/justin/

Tools and Techniques for Creating Fine Prints

Our friends at Hunt’s Photo Video and Ilford are sponsoring a free webinar on fine print making,

Join the Live Video Broadcast on March 29, 2013 at 1:00pm EDT

What are the aspects and qualities that make for a Gallery-Quality Fine Art Print? Exacting color, smooth tonal transitions, a well-balanced contrast range and the best paper choice for the image all come together to make a print worthy of hanging in most any venue or location. Color workflow, soft-proofing and what fine edits to make will all go a long way towards making your results both accurate and repeatable. In this presentation, we’ll explore the process, tools and techniques from edit to output that allow you to produce a print both you and your collectors will be proud of.

Expedition Report: Arizona Overland

Around the campfire, Visionary Wild Arizona Overland Expedition. © Justin Black

 There is nothing like exploring sublime landscapes with a group of friends who share a love for photography and wide open spaces. Immediately after the Thanksgiving holiday, Jack Dykinga, Jeff Foott, and I led a week-long overland photo expedition with nine other passionate photographers, visiting some stunning backcountry areas in northern Arizona. As the guest of a gracious Navajo elder, we first explored and photographed a very special location characterized by dramatic red rock sandstone hoodoos and dinosaur footprints 200 million years old. We then traversed over twenty miles of sandy 4WD jeep trails to one of our very favorite Colorado Plateau locations, a photographer’s paradise of swirling petrified sand dunes, intimate abstract designs, and grand vistas overlooking the Grand Staircase leading down to the Grand Canyon. Our merry band was joined by Chris Collard, Editor-in-Chief of Overland Journal magazine, Laurie Rubin of Nik Software, and Tom Hanagan of Four Wheel Campers.

Visionary Wild photographers, Arizona Overland Expedition. © Chris Collard

 The days were so full of photographic opportunities that many of us had to force ourselves to take a break in order to get some food and a nap, and the photography didn’t end at dusk. Working by the light of our headlamps, we set up Nikons with MC-36 intervalometers to shoot five-hour multi-exposure star trail images, the results of which can be seen in Jack Dykinga’s stunning image in the gallery below.  After a week of intense photography and fulfilling camaraderie, we exchanged hugs, said our farewells, and set off toward home.

The Arizona Overland Expedition was a prototype, testing a model for more overland adventures to come. Stay tuned for exciting overland trips in 2012.

–Justin Black

Here are some highlights submitted by the group.

Evening light on hoodoo garden, Navajo Nation, Arizona. © Julie Furber

Colorado Plateau, northern Arizona. © Sean Stuchen

© Sean Stuchen

© Ed Kenney

"The Beast." © Laurie Rubin

© Wally Reichert

Teamwork while photographing 200-million-year-old dinosaur footprints. © Chris Collard

Dilophosaurus dinosaur tracks, 200 million years old. © Jack Dykinga

Hoodoos beneath the Milky Way. © Jack Dykinga

Colorado Plateau details. © Jack Dykinga

Petrified sand dune sculpture, Colorado Plateau, Arizona. © Justin Black

Morning on the Colorado Plateau, Arizona. © Justin Black

 

Hoodoos in last light, Navajo Nation, Arizona. © Justin Black

Moon over hoodoos, Navajo Nation, Arizona. © Justin Black

Sandstone sculpture, Colorado Plateau, Arizona. © Justin Black

Petrified sand dune detail, Colorado Plateau. © Jeff Foott

Eroded sandstone "fins," Colorado Plateau. © Jeff Foott

Visionary Wild Arizona Overland Expedition. © Chris Collard

Daniel Beltrá wins Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award at London gala

At a gala event in London sponsored by Veolia Environnement, Visionary Wild instructor Daniel Beltrá has won the 2011 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award for his image Still Life in Oil, a striking shot of eight brown pelicans rescued from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in June 2010.

Beltrá made the photograph at an ad hoc bird-rescue facility on the Louisiana coast. ‘Crude oil trickles off the feathers of the rescued brown pelicans, turning the white lining sheets into a sticky, stinking mess. The pelicans are going through the first stage of cleaning. They’ve already been sprayed with a light oil to break up the heavy crude trapped in their feathers,’ Beltrá explained. A statement from the judging panel described the image as ‘a strong environmental statement, technical perfection and a work of art all rolled into one. The sheer simplicity of this powerful image makes it really beautiful and shocking at the same time’

The international judging panel of respected wildlife experts and nature photographers reviewed more than 40,000 entries from aspiring amateurs and established professional photographers from all corners of the earth. As a sign of the competition’s growing international reach, this year saw first-time submissions from countries as far afield as Cambodia, Moldova, Brunei and Kyrgyzstan. There was also a notable increase in photographs submitted from countries such as India, China and Russia.

Now in its 47th year, the competition is owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine and is sponsored by Veolia Environnement. It is internationally recognised for taking a lead in the artistic representation of the natural world and continues to be held in high esteem with a reputation for being the Oscars of the wildlife photographic calendar.

The winning images will be featured in an international exhibition beginning at the Natural History Museum, London, on Friday 21 October

This important photograph is presently touring as part of Beltrá’s exhibit, Spill, at the Long Beach Aquarium in California, and at Roca Gallery in Barcelona, Spain. Limited edition prints are avaible as follows:

Oil Spill #20 – Still Life in Oil 

2010

Chromogenic Print

Limited Editions:    Mounted Size:    Price: 

 8                                        48 x 60                     $10,250

10                                       40 x 48                     $5,500

15                                       25 x 30                      $3,500

Prices are for unframed, museum quality mounted, archival prints.

Shipping and sales tax not included.  For more information and edition availability, contact Susan Newbold at danielbeltra.studio@gmail.com.

 

Photographing with Purpose

The November 2011 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine features an article by Justin Black about ways to add greater meaning and purpose to your photography. You can read the full text and see the accompanying photos here:

Photographing with Purpose by Justin Black

Snow-covered bristlecone snag in the Schulman Grove, Inyo National Forest, White Mountains, California

Jack Dykinga Interview Slideshow

Jack Dykinga on Mark Godfrey Selects

Nature Conservancy Director of Photography Mark Godfrey recently interviewed Visionary Wild instructor Jack Dykinga for this multimedia slideshow featuring some of Jack’s best work.

An Eye-Opening Twilight

by Justin Black

The very American artistic tradition of celebrating the concept of wilderness, associated so closely with photographers like Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, reached an early zenith in the mid 19th century with the Hudson River School painters. Their work attempted to capture exceptional qualities of light, topography, and weather to render idealized visions – not always far from the truth ­– of sublime landscapes across the continent, from the Catskills to California, in which humanity is often permitted to be present but never dominates.

It is hard not to characterize the light captured with oil on canvas by the likes of Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, and Sanford Gifford as “photographic” while we often refer to comparable light in photographs as “painterly.” We still see and photograph similarly sublime scenes in wild areas across America today. A key difference is that the Hudson River School artists experienced a view of nature and our place in it that was entirely new, but our vision still works the same way theirs did 150 years ago.

In fact, this piece by Gifford once helped to open my eyes to the way we see and go about capturing images of the world around us.

A Winter Twilight, 1862, oil on canvas, by Sanford Gifford

His painting depicts three tiny figures on a frozen pond, with a fence line and shrubbery in the foreground, and a row of trees in the background. The trees’ bare branches are silhouetted against a colorful evening sky. Something about the way the artist rendered the highlights and shadows in the image seemed oddly familiar…

Back in the film days, frustration with the limited range of tones that photographers could capture led to the development of solutions like graduated neutral density filters that enabled us to easily balance differences in brightness between two or more areas of a composition. The apparent flaw of grad ND filters, however, has always been that when an object is itself entirely in shadow but crosses over from dark to bright backgrounds within the composition, the filter gives away its effect because the section of the object that is against the brighter background (the area being darkened by the dense part of the filter) ends up going black, while the part of the same object that falls against the shaded background (not being effected by the filter) shows good mid-tone detail.

In Gifford’s painting, objects in the area of shade at the bottom of the painting displayed good shadow detail, while the tops of the trees against the brighter sky and were painted as black silhouettes – exactly the sort of rendering I had seen time and time again in color slides made using a graduated neutral density filter. But the painter had never seen a color photograph, much less the effect of a grad ND filter, so why would Gifford paint the tops of his trees black when good detail is readily apparent in similarly illuminated subject matter within the scene?

Without resorting to complex darkroom masking, a film photographer attempting to render good color saturation in the bright sky behind the trees would have had no choice but to force the silhouette and the accompanying loss of detail in the branches. Gifford on the other hand, with the unrestricted palette of artistic freedom at his command, chose to paint the trees this way. It’s the way he visualized them and what looked most natural to him as he applied paint to canvas.

To put it simply, the silhouette of branches against the sky is precisely how he saw it – and how any of us would see  – despite the fact that the light source for the illumination of the treetops is the same as that in the shadowy parts of the scene that he chose to paint a bit lighter and with good detail. This makes sense: when we look at an object illuminated by diffuse indirect light against a dark background, our visual system sees good detail in it. The same object illuminated by the same light but against a sufficiently bright background will look black as our visual system responds to the increased overall brightness. This is precisely the reason why, when used carefully, graduated neutral density can make an image look more like what we saw with our own eyes.

Fast forward to the present day. Finally, digital technology empowers photographers in the early 21st century with a degree of control and creative freedom comparable to that of a 19th century oil painter. In comparison, however, photographers have it easy – no need to sketch numerous detailed studies in the field for use as artist’s references in the creation of the final piece later, and no need to labor for weeks on end to complete a single finished work.

The tradeoff of course for our powerful digital tools is a greater burden of creative and aesthetic judgments. As wonderful as they are, all the array of technological tools at our disposal are only as good as the eyes and brains used to apply them. High dynamic range processing (HDR), for example, can create visually striking images, but the lure to routinely over process can be seductive. When technology guides the creative process rather than serving as a tool under the thoughtful control of the artist, we can experience more difficulty in aesthetically and intuitively accepting an over-manipulated photograph of a real scene than we do a naturalistic 19th-century oil painting of a scene that only ever existed in the artist’s mind.

HDR and other new tools are not the problem, but we are faced with an broader array of decisions that influence the quality, relevance, and character of our work. We take for granted the immense power of post-production tools that enable us to radically lighten and enhance detail in a shadow area – that back in the film days might have been rendered as pure black by default – while simultaneously rendering finely detailed bright highlights. We have the technology to do it, but one has to carefully consider when, how, and how much to use the tools in the digital toolbox, and whether each modification really serves the image. We can boost saturation and contrast of the most banal composition to the point that it grabs visual attention, but will it mesh with our visual intuition and actually hold up aesthetically over the long term?

Finding ourselves with complete and easy control over the color and tonal value of every pixel in every photograph we produce, photographic artists can enjoy the freedom of total creative license. Like a painter, we have the option to render the treetops as silhouette, or instead can choose to depict them as richly detailed mid tones against the same bright and vibrant background. Gifford conspicuously chose the approach that is more in accord with naturalistic visual perception despite his ability to have depicted it any way he wished.

In the context of a world filled with high-definition digital animation and fantasy photo-illustration, it is truer than ever that the most meaningful nature photographs will be those that inform us in some way about real nature and our relationship to it. These images may be spectacularly beautiful; they may reveal situations, phenomena, and juxtapositions in nature that seem unbelievable, uplifting, or devastatingly depressing; but the greatest power of nature photography stems from the trust that the image we find so compelling is also representative of another human being’s authentic experience.

Interestingly, A Winter Twilight doesn’t depict an actual event in time and space. Concealed by Gifford’s masterful rendering of light and tone is the fact that it is an imagined composite of real situations that he sketched in various locations and at all hours of the day rather than during the fleeting twilight depicted in the final painting. His highly tuned ability to see and visualize a final composition, however, enabled him to create a fairly convincing illusion of reality back in his New York studio. Though we photographers work on location and in the moment, we can still learn a great deal from the impressive visual intuition, understanding of light, and thoughtful aesthetic choices demonstrated by Gifford and other painters like him. As fast as the times, technology, and tastes may change, we share a profound connection with our antecedents through the human visual system.